2015 has been a curious year. Social injustice and civil unrest have us leaning ever on the precipice of war, or, at the very least, a mass shooting. And the unseasonably warm winter has us wondering if Kevin Costner is going to save us before we all have to make a swim for it. But there’s a common theme that runs through all shifts in culture; when things are bad in the real world, music is (often historically) good.
Our 75 favorite albums of 2015 have told the story of struggle and hope, with a voice of inclusion. Regardless of genre, social consciousness has been the thread that connects our listening choices for this year. From Pacific Northwest gender activism, to introverted rappers, to communists in Rhode Island, the musicians celebrated within this list remind us on a daily basis that art, is in fact, life. And life is better with these records in hand.
When the music hits…
The Top 20 Albums of 2015
20. Oshun, ASASE YAA
“Asase Ya is a term for Mother Earth,” Niambi Sala, one half of New York duo OSHUN, told us back in April. “Asase Ya, the project is in honor of Mother Earth, and respecting, loving, and appreciating the land in which we inhabit. She’s not gonna take care of us if we don’t take care of her. [It’s also about] Black Women as earth, uplifting and re-instilling certain principles and ideas … Our goal with this project is so the Black woman or anybody can transcend. We’re stuck in mental slavery. Throughout the project we go into liberation, freeing yourself and realizing who you are.”
19. Try the Pie, Domestication
Try the Pie was formerly the intimate, sweet-sung solo endeavor of Crabapple drummer Bean Tupou, but for the band’s newest full-length, Domestication, released this spring via Salinas Records, the band was filled out by Rich Gutierrez (of Sourpatch, Younger Lovers, Busted Outlook, Permanent Ruin) and Nick Lopez (of Ugly Winner). “I wanted to call it Domestication because it has a lot to do with private life,” Tupou told us in April. “The decisions that we make with ourselves, our instincts, and our subconscious desires create expectations of how we should act and how other people should act.”
18. Tenement, Predatory Headlights
In certain pockets of the punk world, people will tell you without hesitation that Tenement’s Predatory Headlights is the best record of the year. The 80-minute double-album has been about four years in the making; songwriter Amos Pitsch has clearly spent a lot of time both in his head and digging through record crates of out-there jazz and post-punk records, pinning such varied influences to the Tenement’s punk backbone at the record’s every turn. It was largely written and recorded at their Appleton, Wisconsin punk house, The BFG, but sounds bigger.
READ: Liz Pelly on “Hive of Hives”.
17. milo, So The Flies Don’t Come (Ruby Yacht)
In returning to the moniker that broke him into the art rap gallery after the Scallops Hotel departure, milo is not the nerd we assumed him to be. His Hellfyre Club debut hinted of the shedding and Plain Speaking departed further into the psyche rather than the imagination. Unlike A Toothpaste Suburb, milo no longer feels the privilege of adventuring through imaginary places on So The Flies Don’t Come. In the title itself the suggestion is life, no wasted seconds, no cease in movement because the alternative is expiration.
16. PWR BTTM, Ugly Cherries (Miscreant Records)
Ugly Cherries is the title of PWR BTTM’s CS/LP released early September via the combined efforts of Miscreant and Father/Daughter Records, but it’s also the title of the first self-reflecting song singer Ben Hopkins has written about himself. Which is ironic given how much of the duo’s identity is centered around, well, their identity. “It’s a confrontation: an attempt to unpack my own queerness with humor and self care,” Hopkins told Spin, “I just got so fucking tired of wishing I was different so I decided to scream, ‘She’s all right’ until I actually was.” As Spencer Davis noted, ultimately, that’s the message of Ugly Cherries: queer lives, irreducibly complex, sound like more than token political narratives. Sometimes, they even sound like catchy, riff-heavy pop-punk.
15. Protomartyr, The Agent Intellect
Replacing the “age of intellect” with the agent of it might be what those of us inundated with social media and the echo chamber of unsolicited opinions face daily. In one of the albums more intense moments, frontman Joe Casey simmers on “Cowards Starve” that “Social pressures exist / And if you think about them all of the time / You’re gonna find that your head’s been kicked in.” Unsettling as it may seem, anyone who’s spent more than a few moments looking at Twitter knows exactly what he’s talking about. Which is why we should all take a cue from the frontman at the song’s close and “go out in style.” As Casey and Protomartyr deftly illustrate, style and substance don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
14. London O’Connor, O∆
“I feel when I was younger other kids were just able to do things, but I was always thinking about what the results were going to be,” O’Connor told us earlier this year. “I had all these thoughts and kids weren’t talking about that shit, so I would just skate and think.” This sense of introspection is at the core of O∆. One of the things that’s inescapable about O’Connor’s music is its overtly personal nature. On “Guts”, a tirade about the things he can’t stand, he goes as far as to specifically put a dude named Steve on blast, saying, “and all this nonsense, of this mother fucking continent / Fuck the nigga Steve.” But that frustration channeled as hate is only one side of the coin. In the description for the music video for his single “Love Song”, the 24-year-old puts out the fact that he didn’t lose his virginity till he was 21 and cites his mother being cheated on as the inspiration for the song. And all of this is wrapped in a pop-shell, highlighting O’Connor’s keen melodic sensibility and the skill and courage it takes to genuinely move between genres like synth pop and hip-hop/r&b without sacrificing what’s at the core of either genre.
13. Wax Idols, American Tragic (Collect Records)
On her 2013 album Discipline & Desire, Wax Idols’ Hether Fortune showed an aggressive interest in power dynamics. Written in the wake of her divorce, her third album, American Tragic, continues this exploration, honing in on the corruptible nature of power and the destabilizing effects incurred when it’s taken away. She sorts through personal grief and looks at what happens when emotional power on a larger scale is leached from marginalized groups. Calling it a big “fuck you’”to people who capitalize on the vulnerability of others.
12. Empress Of, Me (Terrible Records)
“The biggest message in this record is that it’s hard to be comfortable with yourself,” Lorely Rodriguez told us about the making of her new LP. “It’s hard to love yourself. When you’re alone for so long you have to love yourself, otherwise you go crazy. I didn’t love myself. When you’re in New York there are so many distractions, there are so many people you can go to and forget that you have these insecurities.”
11. Hop Along, Painted Shut (Saddle Creek)
Frances Quinlan believes Painted Shut is her clearest vision yet. It was the first time Hop Along had written a record together as a full band, but Frances was still on her own for lyrics. Instead of herself, Quinlan writes about the lives of others: the struggles of music legends Buddy Bolden and Jackson C. Frank (“Buddy in the Parade”, “Horseshoe Crabs”), being the bystander of an incident of child abuse (“Powerful Man”). “The hard thing about writing a song is you don’t have much time with the characters,” she says, imagining her characters like those of a comic strip.
10. Krill, A Distant Fist Unclenching (Exploding In Sound)
“It’s not a ‘Feel Good’ album,” Jonah Furman told us back in March. “But it’s about stopping the anxiety of worrying about life. Relaxing, in a way. After a really intense time, what comes next? It’s good for people to listen to our music when they’re feeling really down on themselves or whatever, but I don’t want to make music that’s suicidal.”
Indeed, A Distant Fist Unclenching is the band’s best, most intricate work to date: still inherently sad, its narrative is straightforward yet surreal, dark yet brimming with light humor.
09. Shopping, Why Choose (Fat Cat)
English post-punk outfit Shopping’s second album, Why Choose, sounds lean, brisk, and urgent. All of the instrumental tones are refreshingly clean and unadorned, keenly separated from one another in the mix, which instills the skittish grooves and wily guitar with rousing presence. For post-punk, understood as this sort of sonic criteria and performative vocabulary, sinew trumps muscle. Further, Shopping’s savvy subversion of marketing lingo persists from their first album, Consumer Complaints.
08. Jenny Hval, Apocalypse, girl (Sacred Bones)
The most quietly provocative album of the year, Jenny Hval’s consummate Apocalypse, girl probes “the edge of history,” where bodies do a death-dance with capital and the culture wars’ familiar fronts erode. Few artists court inscrutability with such grace—let alone while, to the consternation of critics all year, coining and articulating “soft dick rock”—and even fewer with such immediate grasp of beauty. The music is gossamer and then synthetic, beat-based and then fractal, while Hval’s voice is hushed and then huge, choral and then almost painfully alone. And perhaps it demands continuous revisiting because it refuses resolution. Even, apparently, for Hval herself, who pondered Apocalypse, girl‘s album photo in a fantastic Pitchfork interview: “Is she exhausted by the elliptical? Is she humping it? Is she humping the system?”
07. US Girls, Half Free (4AD)
Half Free is the closest thing to a pop album Meghan Remy & co. have released to date, but make no mistake: this is no sell-out, no pandering to an imagined public. The relative accessibility of this album—seductive hooks, clean production—is instead utilitarian, leaving no barriers in the way of Remy’s sharp storytelling. The women of Half Free are in varying degrees of resistance against the circumstances of their lives, varying degrees of pain; Remy’s narratives are both universal and specific: relatably horrific, perfectly human hells. This is pop as existential terror, pop on the precipice, skittering beats the singing reflections of our own gendered anxieties.
06. Fred Thomas, All Are Saved (Polyvinyl)
On this eighth full-length solo record, All Are Saved, Fred Thomas is singing like his life is at stake, like he’s distilled every hard-learned story so that he can explain them as quickly as possible with all of his heart. “I wanted to spit out all of the anger, love, excitement, resistance, confusion and hurt I’d ever felt through a lyrical filter that seemed like I was addressing it from the other side of life,” he told use in March. “At a distance from my own experiences even while they were happening.”
05. Eskimeaux, O.K. (Double Double Whammy)
“The sound of this album is the most informed by the influence of the people directly surrounding me,” Gabrielle Smith a/k/a Eskimeaux told Impose earlier this year. “That includes Oliver listening to the radio all the time and Jack showing me really cool J-pop bands and myself wanting certain parts to sound like Tegan and Sara or Taylor Swift. Then on the other hand, I am super influenced by Oliver’s recordings and wanting create a ‘Bellows moment’ or have the song suck into itself to emulate Told Slant.”
04. Al Rogers Jr., Luvadocious
Uncompromising is the through line each loose Soundcloud upload has shared leading up to Al Rogers Jr.’s Luvadocious record. At least, at passing glance that would be an accurate read as a bouncy pop track like “BlueGreen” is stacked against “Honey” addressing the Baltimore uprising in May. And perhaps that uprising was the catalyst of Luvadocious, which is Rogers Jr.’s imagined world where god is feminine and love is not feared. Many of the anxieties explored on “Honey” like poverty and oppression are given deeper meditations on Luvadocious in hopes of discovering transcendence—liberation from that ghetto of the mind.
The Luvadocious concept explores this new world of fearless living through radio transmissions by Godina, the black goddess played by Baltimore radio personality Ladawn Black. The eponymous overture invites the listener to loosen up, conveyed through a side show introtoletuknow that Rogers Jr. has transported us to an alternate universe. That said, Al Rogers Jr. is not an eccentric-to-a-fault, Willy Wonka type guide promising immediate alleviation of strife. Yes, the record envisions utopian worlds, but that does not mean Rogers Jr.’s head is so far in the clouds he cannot see the cracks in the pavement.
03. Julia Holter, Have You In My Wilderness (Domino)
“Before long, the Greek Theater will approach capacity, but Holter’s room feels cloistered and remote. Her new album, Have You in My Wilderness, performs a similar feat. In her words, it’s “rich, warm, and golden.” Flush with emotional texture, string melodies emerge from choral backdrops and recede behind Holter’s inimitable phrasing. She says that 2013’s Loud City Song was supposed to be “theatrical and orchestral,” but theaters seem modest for Have You in My Wilderness. It’s for the roofless auditorium. And yet, Holter’s expansive, lush record also feels steeped in ruminative isolation. It shares visions honed alone at home, not reaching out to listeners so much as drawing them inside.”
02. G.L.O.S.S., Demo (Not Normal Tapes)
G.L.O.S.S. stands for Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit. They are a five-piece hardcore punk band from Olympia, Washington. On January 16, they posted a demo on Bandcamp that exploded across certain corners of the punk world. Understandably so; their music is urgent and vital. In five short songs, they lay out personal histories, a rejection of masculinity, a rejection of societal expectation. Ultimately, the most important words needed to understand the power of a band like G.L.O.S.S., and the transcendent music that has come to define 2015, can be found in their own lyrics: “Medicalized under the knife,” begins “Masculinity Artifice”. “Expected to be grateful / Trapped in the lens / Of the CIS-gaze / Just another sad transexual / Masculinity / Was their artifice / Rip it away / Femininity / Always at the heart of us! / Trans girls be free!”
01. Downtown Boys, Full Communism
No other group has maintained as strong a voice and as impassioned a message as Downtown Boys have in 2015. Led by the fearless duo of singer Victoria Ruiz and guitar player Joey La Neve Defrancesco, the Rhode Island activists take their brief moments on stage to speak honestly about police brutality, the prison-industrial complex, racism, sexism, gentrification; in punk tradition, these teach-ins are meant to educate and empower, to unify the crowd, make people think before they rage. That energy is preserved on their incredible full-length, Full Communism, through dueling saxes, ripping guitars and Victoria’s uncompromising passion. It’s a message not left for the underground elite; constantly touring and teaching, Downtown Boys remain committed to fracture the system that keeps so many down, even taking music criticism into their own hands by partnering with Demand Progress to launch Spark Mag. Few can match the aggression, and none have inspired us as much. Full Communism is likely the start of a long ride with the Downtown Boys. It might never rank as their opus, it’s just their best yet.
The rest of the Best Albums of 2015 in alphabetical order:
Adult Mom, Momentary Lapse of Happily (Tiny Engines)
“I really appreciate Momentary Lapse of Happily because so much of it was me needing to cope, needing to write about it, but so much of it was also like, ‘this my saving grace in that this is an archive or monument of shit that has gone down’,” Steph Knipe told us in July, referring to Adult Mom’s debut full-length album for Tiny Engines. Narrative aside, it is an aural time capsule of all the previous Adult Mom releases: a combination of the joyful bubblegum of 2013’s I Fell In Love by Accident and the sentimental wisdom of 2014’s Sometimes Bad Happens.
READ: Adult Mom survives on their own terms by Quinn Moreland.
Advaeta, Death And The Internet (Fire Talk Records)
Advaeta’s first full-length, Death and the Internet, was released this spring on Fire Talk, a concentrated work in fuzz, shaping the most pleasing note progressions and poignant vocalism out of only the haziest sonic horizons. “This record is years of our lives,” Sara Fantry, one-third of the band, told us in February. Just about every song is soaked in heavy distortion and masterful melodies, and that effort is clear.
Alice Cohen, Into The Grey Salons (Olde English Spelling Bee)
“I think mirrors have to do with identity, and a way of connecting with yourself,” Alice Cohen told us in October. “When you look in the mirror, it’s sort of an attempt to connect with yourself in this visual way.” Cohen’s new album, Into The Grey Salons, plays with these sorts of ideas, contemplating image, consumption, escapism, and performance along the way. It was directly inspired by an extravagant, historic department store in Philadelphia, where she grew up, but also seems to riff on ideas that would become engrained within someone after decades of wandering in and out of various corners of the music industry.
All Dogs, Kicking Every Day (Salinas Records)
The long-awaited full-length from Columbus punks All Dogs is a 10-song collection of crushing, pummeling guitar-pop. Earlier this year, writing about the album’s lead single, “That Kind Of Girl,” Quinn Moreland wrote:
“That Kind of Girl” … acts as a sort of conclusion to [earlier songs] “Love Song” and “Georgia.” In those songs, burgeoning relationships were approached with caution, but here, an affair ends with the acknowledgement of a personal problem and self-prioritizing. I think every female-identifying individual can relate to being “that kind of girl” in some way. As Jones asks, “What does that mean?”
Ava Luna, Infinite House (Western Vinyl)
Ever-shifting Brooklynites Ava Luna returned in April with a new full-length on Western Vinyl, a collection displaying their distinct brand of versatility. “Billz” opened with a nearly opaque wall of sound before sliding into their could-be trademarked spacey soul-tinged verses, while “Steve Polyester” acted like a beat poem with its bouncy drum-start and a monologue-style description of a mystical figure.
WATCH: Ava Luna, “Steve Polyester”
Aye Nako, The Blackest Eye (Don Giovanni)
Aye Nako’s 2013 debut full-length, Unleash Yourself, won many hearts by setting relatable anecdotes against irresistible pop-punk hooks. And their follow-up, The Blackest Eye, released July 10 on Don Giovanni Records, does the same and more. The album’s title alludes to Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, and similarly deals with themes of identity, abuse, power, race, and inferiority. Such urgently necessary topics are explored on the record’s lyrics, like when Mars Dixon sings, “I’ve let the white noise fuzz in my head for so long,” on the lead single.
Billy Woods, Today I Wrote Nothing (Backwoodz Studioz)
The title Today, I Wrote Nothing in the context of a billy woods record feels suspect. The album itself avoids conventional introduction as Elucid is the first voice heard, while woods enters crestfallen and apathetic on “Lost Blocks” with the words, “today, I wrote nothing” as his overture. And it’s not that he wrote nothing, the end. But Today, I Wrote Nothing might not exist had woods not endured a spell of inactivity, a spell broken by a drunk with a copy of a Daniil Kharms’ eponymous collection…
Booker Stardrum, Dance And (NNA Tapes)
Contrasts of shapes and shapelessness are explored, toyed with, and tweaked in Booker Stardrum’s new tape, Dance And; an experimental exercise of mental landscaping, heavily emphasized in drums and percussion. A master drummer coming from the band VaVatican, Stardrum navigates a spectrum of percussive patterns ranging from light bells to tremendous crashes and synth-like samples, creating portraits of instability.
Ceremony, The L-Shaped Man (Matador Records)
A record three years in the making will carry with it the burdens of its creators. And when revolving around an event as profoundly devastating as a breakup, and created by such sound shifting masters as Ceremony, those burdens will be conveyed and released with power and humanity. The L-Shaped Man, the band’s fifth record, and unquestionably their most deeply personal endeavor yet, maps out a wholly individual experience in ways that are equally universal as empathetic.
Chastity Belt, Time To Go Home (Hardly Art)
Chastity Belt does not mess around with subtlety. The band preaches a YOLO lifestyle full of fun and freedom. But in between songs about drinking, fucking, and nip-slips, there is an existential sadness. The band continues to explore the interplay of introspective vulnerability and humor on their sophomore album, Time To Go Home, their first for Hardly Art. There’s a darkness on the edge of town. On the album’s opener, “Drone”, Shapiro sings, “I never expect much from anyone / So I’m never disappointed / and I never have to trust.” The heaviness has always been there, but it’s much less refrained on their second go-round.
Childbirth, Women’s Rights (Suicide Squeeze)
If you’re familiar with the music of Childbirth, you won’t be less surprised to hear that their particular list of rule-breaking includes: springing on dessert, being late for work, ordering white wines, and wearing skirts that barely fit. Childbirth is a funny band. Its members hail from other punk bands known to play with a smirk (Chastity Belt, Tacocat, and Pony Time), but while the band definitely comes from a place of humor and the cover for their upcoming debut LP Women’s Rights features a hand holding a glass of wine, pinky out, this levity doesn’t take away from how seriously they rock.
Circuit des Yeux, In Plain Speech (Thrill Jockey)
In Plain Speech, released May 19 via Thrill Jockey, is Circuit des Yeux’s most collaborative and realized work yet. The band name Circuit des Yeux refers to “the nerve in the eye that supplies power to the act of seeing,” Fohr has written, and on this record she is looking at the world around her in a big-picture way. “I think it is important to question authority, society, the way things are, and ask why they can’t be different,” Fohr says. “My generation (millennials) was raised on this short term, goal oriented mind set where everything is disposable and easily replaced. Nothing is sacred in 2015.”
Cities Aviv, Your Discretion Is Trust (Collect Records)
Cities Aviv‘s latest, Your Discretion is Trust, got picked up by Geoff Rickly (former Thursday frontman, United Nations / No Devotion) for release on Collect Records—a fitting home for Discretion‘s dystopic punk… The tracks are brief Dilla-esque sketches that owe little to linear time, jumping into and out of ideas without cushioning or sentiment. The titles are explicitly political (“Act Up”, “No GMO”, “Discrimination”, “Black Sequence”) but the content is abstract—affective analogues to hashtag semiotics.
Container, LP (Spectrum Spools)
There’s something of a joke in the underground music communities of places such as Oakland, Baltimore, or Los Angeles that all of the punks bought modular synthesizers and swore allegiance to techno. So far, the apparent subcultural shakeup has yielded few standout hardware soloists. Except for Container. Ren Schofield, a drummer, is prone to citing noise-rock as a chief influence, and it shows: LP, his third such titled statement, transposes the galloping beats and dissonant lashes of a highly combustible rock ensemble into an electronic vernacular. Swathed in dark, analog luster, LP evokes less of a pulse and more of a tantrum.
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop Music)
Courtney Barnett is one of the most clever lyricists in rock right now, a truth that continues to play out on her 2015 album for Mom+Pop, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. The record is alternatingly hilarious and devastating and sometimes both at once, Barnett’s prickly poetry sometimes stretched out with her drawling infliction and then later sped-up in double-time.
Dam-Funk, Invite The Light (Stones Throw)
“I will continue to broadcast this message in the event that someone is listening,” sounds the broadcast that opens up Dam-Funk‘s Invite The Light, the follow-up to 2009’s Toeachizown. “The upheaval suffered by the human race began to occur because our insistence of removing all elements of the funk,” the recording continues, “If we invite the funk, it will never let us down.”
No one will ever accuse Damon Riddick, pka Dam-Funk, of letting us down, and if in the future funk has been eradicated from our musical catalog, it will surely take longer than six years to reach this dystopian reality if he has anything to say about it.
DJ Paypal, Sold Out (Brainfeeder)
DJ Paypal is a member of the Mall Music collective consisting of fellow norm-corporate monikers like DJ Mastercard and DJ Orange Julius. He’s also an overseas member of the worldwide footwork collective TEK Life, but the signing to Brainfeeder is a coup of a different color. Has DJ Paypal sold out? Essentially it’s part of a linear dialogue between releases—his last being Buy Now—but if we trust Flying Lotus’ executive decisions (and we do!) then Sold Out is likely to be beyond the average footwork record.
Dreamcrusher, Hackers All of Them Hackers (Fire Talk)
Under a banner of “NIHILIST QUEER REVOLT MUSIK”, Dreamcrusher embodies the non-binary, genderqueer cause that embraces abrasive electronics and searing electric industrious effects for further measures. Their new EP begins with ear scorching blasts of “Fear (And No Feeling)” that casts all things into the uncharted void of uncertainty. Melodic synths muddle amid a constant onslaught of distorted squelch on “Adore”, right before tossing the listener with gleeful abandon into the dire pits of trench dug dissonance on the all out war of “All Covered In Red”.
Eartheater, Metalepsis (Hausu Mountain); RIP Chrysalis (Hausu Mountain)
Eartheater is one of two artists with multiple releases making our list. Metalepsis is simultaneously acoustic and electric, human and cyborg and alien, intricate and tranquil. Sounds are cocooned together to form an amniotic drone womb, pulsing faintly with, as Eartheater’s IRL avatar Alexandra Drewchin puts it, “watery warm mother heart beat rhythm.”
On Metalepsis, she expressed her motivation to create as living, whereas RIP Chrysalis is a post-modem ode to the former. Drewchin is able to find fluidity within context of both the living and remembered.
Fielded, Boy Angel (Universally Handsome)
Boy Angel is a gorgeous piece of baroque pop, driven by Powell’s powerful voice and masterful production. Fielded holds back no emotions; she hones them into meticulously articulated grandiose power pop.
Gas Rag, On the Beach (Even Worse Records)
There’s no room for art in the Republic, just hardcore. And On the Beach empirically evidences the genre’s Platonic ideal. The Chicago outfit’s final statement, which appeared stateside in early 2015, leaves nothing else to be desired. A rare feat.
Girlpool, Before the World Was Big (Wichita Recordings)
“I was taught what to believe / now I’m only certain that no one is free,” sing Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad on the opening track of their debut full-length. The song, “Ideal World,” is a careful, slow-moving ode to finding yourself, idealism, freedom; sentiments that run through much of Girlpool’s music and the careful beauty that is Before The World Was Big.
Heaven’s Gate, Woman At Night (Dull Tools)
“The case [of “Amanda Berry“] resonated with me so much, not only because it’s many women’s worst nightmare, but because it’s a remarkable story that illustrates the polarity of total depravity against resiliency and survival. I think the impulse to write about myself and other women on this record was probably an attempt to process and master these circumstances and stories of violence against women, and to take back some power and control.” —Jess Paps of Heaven’s Gate
Heems, Eat Pray Thug (Megaforce Records)
In March, Heems released the magnificently titled solo album Eat Pray Thug, out via Megaforce Records and his own Greedhead Music. It’s the first bit of music from Suri since his 2012 run of mixtapes, Nehru Jackets and Wild Water Kingdom. Recorded in Bandra, Mumbai at Purple Haze Studios, the record sounds like Heems’ most fully realized vision. There are moments of emotional rawness mixed with political clarity and earnestness.
Home Blitz, Foremost & Fair (Richie Records)
Foremost & Fair is the finest statement from Daniel DiMaggio’s longtime songwriting vessel, Home Blitz. Clearly a student of glam and power-pop, DiMaggio’s influences nevertheless cede Foremost & Fair‘s foreground to his eccentricities: breathily affected vocals, harpsichord thickets, and tendency to sound so palpably thrilled that the songs surge and collapse, exhausted. The pacing evokes sprinters tripping on their own feet, zealous enough to stumble and do so with grace.
I Tried To Run Away When I Was 6, Not Avoiding You (Miscreant Records)
“This particular grouping of tracks are all about my friends,” Domenica Pileggi told us this month. “Most of my songs are about my friends I think … I’d consider all of these songs platonic love songs in some sense. Out August 28 on Miscreant Records, Not Avoiding You is i tried to run away when i was 6’s first “official” release following a series of Bandcamp EPs, splits, and now-deleted demos.
Jay Som, Untitled
The solo moniker of Melina Duterte, Jay Som’s Untitled offers immediate gratification that does not require one to be familiar with Melina’s work with Summer Peaks, nor previous single releases. Even those familiar with a handful of masters that were being traded among artists and labels for the past year will discover them and more in a crafty album order that keeps the DIY thrills in a constant state of beguiling wonder. Melina’s collection of “finished & unfinished songs” that were created during the span from March 2014 to October 2015 proves to be one of the year’s most masterful and ambitious releases where the one woman army of Jay Som has the listener wondering “how in the world did she create that sound?”
Joanna Gruesome, Peanut Butter (Slumberland Records)
Released in June via Slumberland, Peanut Butter is another welcome experiment with the combination of atonal, British hardcore punk and hyper melodic pop music. In a statement about the new record, songwriter Owen Williams said: “Lyrically, it’s more obtuse and surreal but also attempts to mock trad masculine rock themes whenever things do get more lucid. But sometimes musically we embrace them by doing embarrassing guitar solos.” This self-awareness in a genre that is not always so cognizant of its patriarchal history is what makes Joanna Gruesome’s tendency toward screaming and sonic violence so captivating.
Junglepussy, Pregnant With Success
By closer “Dear Diary”, producer Shy Guy has offered no singular template for Junglepussy. She’s stomped through all rap-chic pigeonholes with no airs of belittlement. In that same regard, men are not made of straw nor scapegoats in the under tow of a feminist wave. In the end, she’s at the bathroom mirror, brushing her teeth and reflecting on her philosophies: “I reside in a realm of my own. But I still know how to co-exist.” Spin the record back and Junglepussy’s world is precisely that, a vision of equal sexes coexisting in unity.
Kelela, Hallucinogen EP (Warp)
Kelela’s Hallucinogen came out five months after it was originally supposed to be released, so it’s comforting to know the wait was worth it. Over the EP’s six tracks, Kelela’s voice takes form, as she explores the casual darkness found in a bad relationship. The hazy, thick production that coats most of the EP only helps to reinforce Hallucinogen’s weight even more. Kelela is helping shape a musical landscape for humans that will undoubtedly be created by machines. Regardless of this reality, it’s good to know we won’t lose our soul.
Long Beard, Sleepwalkers (Team Love Records)
Taking cues from artists as varied as Daisuke Miyatani, Cocteau Twins and Sibylle Baier (among others), Sleepwalker is 35 minutes of intricately arranged songs that use the larger concepts of changing seasons and times of day as structure to present Leslie Bear’s more intimate emotions. “It’s a little intense and weird,” she says, “but that’s how I organized it and wrote a lot of the songs, depending on what season it was when I wrote them or what season I wished it was when I wrote them.”
Lower Dens, Escape From Evil (Ribbon Music)
There’s a difference between the kind of art you make because you need to make it in order to survive, and the kind of art you make to give life to a particular vision. At this point in Jana Hunter‘s songwriting career, she’s happy to have reached the latter category … On Escape From Evil, Lower Dens has written an album with fun at the forefront. The production is crisp, songs are frequently instrument-driven, written explicitly for the purpose of being enjoyable to tour on, enjoyable to perform live over and over again.
Majical Cloudz, Are You Alone? (Matador)
Are You Alone? is an album about relationships. The ones with friends, the ones with lovers. and how they mean everything, both good and bad. Devon Welsh’s lyrics are as minimal as ever, yet cut deeper than they ever have before. Matt Otto’s dreary synths are just as sparse, but have a new depth that defines each song. Are You Alone? is a heart wrenching album, but there’s something terribly life affirming about it as well.
Malportado Kids, Total Cultura (Dead Labour)
Total Cultura is a declaration of the Malportado Kids’ bid for total culture, an idea which guitarist/vocalist Joey DeFrancesco once explained in an interview with Shotgun Seamstress as such: “We often fall into this trap of dividing culture from everyday life, as if culture is something that stops at the gallery door or the stage. This is what capitalism wants culture to be—a neatly separated experience that you consume and then move on. Truly revolutionary art or music reaches beyond where it’s supposed to be confined and inspires you to take action at work, against the people you who are putting you down, and so on.”
Mizan K, Dark Blue EP
There is a moment on Mizan K’s “No Fool [Freestyle]” that channels Nina Simone’s “I Don’t Want Him (You Can Have Him)”, addressing the most complicated side of unrequited love. It’s possible to imagine Mizan K’s piano ballad, drudging through the low end of the ivories, entertaining a captive audience in the dark quiet of Carnegie Hall. These are not the sort of scenarios to be suggested lightly, but Mizan K’s Dark Blue EP is an impressive debut with sincere attachment to legacy and the lineage continuum.
Noveller, Fantastic Planet (Fire Records)
On Fantastic Planet, the latest from Sarah Lipstate, whose shapeshifting Noveller project can take on just about any temper, we see her transcend into a cinematic waterscape—a serene, yet subtly dark backdrop fitting for just about any score. The tones Lipstate is able to conjur from an electric guitar are complicatedly beautiful, which is to say it will be appreciated by passive and active music listeners alike. It’s like a choose your own adventure; you can delve in and dissect it, or just sit back and let the tranquil sounds envelop you.
Ought, Sun Coming Down (Constellation Records)
“It” is an indexical, which is to say that “it” refers to different things depending upon the context of utterance. The limits of the “it” in “Beautiful Blue Sky” from Ought‘s latest LP Sun Coming Down are the song’s central mystery. “It’s all that we have/Just that, under the big, beautiful, blue sky!” serves as the apotheosis of Tim Darcy’s chanted chorus; the words and music surrounding that crescendo pose an existential challenge to the phrase’s suburban connotations. Like suburban kids fulfilling their punk dreams, Ought are ecstatic to have ruptured the predictability of the life under the blue sky so provocatively that “It” now includes space for protean resistance.
Rabit, Communion (Tri Angle Records)
Communion, the debut album by Houston producer Eric Burton as Rabit, is alternately assaultive and unnerving. Vocal samples are rendered as clipped yelps; the moment of forced disappearance suspended for minutes at a time. “Flesh Covers the Bone” is chilled and clinical. And “Pandemic”, with its closing salvo of gunfire, conveys merciless oppression like nothing in recent memory. Intended as a meditation on the state, media, and identity, Burton pulls from various schools of downcast electronic music to articulate contemporary society as a site of violent stratification.
Screaming Females, Rose Mountain (Don Giovanni Records)
For their past couple of releases, Jersey trio Screaming Females have worked with producer Steve Albini (2012’s Ugly, 2014’s Live at the Hideout) but this time around they went into the studio with former Minus the Bear keyboardist Matt Bayles. Bayles has mostly worked extensively with post-hardcore and metal-leaning bands —where Albini’s approach to producing is pretty hands-off, Bayles takes a more active role, and the results are huge.
Sean Nicholas Savage, Other Death (Arbutus Records)
Savage makes making art look effortless. Having produced a nearly a dozen studio albums since 2008 and having toured often since—and meanwhile having lived everywhere from Berlin to Montreal—the Canadian artist has the appearance of someone in constant motion, and he’s picked up a cult following at each point his feet have touched ground. By that token, he’s shifted his attention toward making things less serious. The gravity of the cover of Other Deathseems in itself a bit tongue-in-cheek, as he intends for the new record to be the antithesis of the heaviness that plagued his previous work.
Shamir, Ratchet (XL)
“Vegas is a very cultureless place,” Shamir Bailey told us last year in an interview surrounding his 2014 Godmode EP, Northtown. “We have to struggle to do stuff for ourselves.” This year, Bailey channeled more feelings about his hometown into his debut LP, Ratchet, and took the world by storm. Released in May on XL, it’s one of the years best and most varied pop albums — and certainly the most full of personality. The record is about “growing up in Vegas, though not the Vegas you think you know,” he’s explained.
Sheer Mag, II (Katorga Works)
“When you see something that makes you sick do you button up or do you bleed?” asks Christina Halladay on one of the year’s most memorable musical calls-to-action, the opening line of “Button Up.” “Well I don’t claim to know what’s right but I can see there’s a growing need,” Halladay continues. Fuzzy chords coast in start-and-stop strumming patterns reminiscent of rock opera days of old, while a tastefully sunny guitar, clean and reverbed, flutters around in down strokes. It’s the final cut from their four-song EP II, which in four songs accomplishes more than most full-length records. It’s one of the year’s best rock records.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love (Sub Pop)
It’s easy to shrug off reunion albums, but No Cities to Love doesn’t feel like one. The record sounds like a band picking up where they left off, another breath of strength from the necessary cultural force that is Sleater-Kinney. It’s simultaneously refreshingly familiar and urgently new. “No one here is taking notice / no outline will ever hold us,” they sing on “A New Wave,” and the same can be said for the band themselves.
Slutever, Almost Famous
“Almost Famous is an important release for us,” Nicole Snyder and Rachel Gagliardi said of their new tape back in March. “Recording it was our farewell to Philadelphia, and for an unknown amount of time, our farewell to each other. It’s the outcome of feeling trapped and ambivalent. The songs deal with our anxiety in a very specific period of our lives, and our struggles with growing up.” With revitalized grunge hooks that could boil cough syrup, Slutever’s songs about “teen moms with broken hearts” and “pouring bleach on your head” don’t care to peel off the proverbial band-aid. They rip it from the root.
Sneaks, Sneaks (Danger Records/Sister Polygon); Gymnastics (Danger Records)
The second artist with two releases on our list, Sneaks is the oft-solo outfit helmed by Eva Malchoor. Early in 2015 she graced us with a self-titled EP filled with pithy punk poetry—incantations condensed into tracks that never make it to the two-minute mark, minimally underscored by bass lines and not much else. Gymnastics is the fully-realized LP, sharing the sometimes monotonous, sometimes self-amused vocal delivery and clean melodic bass lines of it’s predecessor. Sneaks sometimes feels like a one-person Household, sometimes like an early draft of a Le Tigre song, with the charm and incantation of both.
Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer (Carpark Records)
“I think it’s just a different kind of anger,” Sadie Dupuis told us earlier this year, talking about the shift in mood from Major Arcanato Foil Deer. “It maybe needs better articulation than whatever moody stuff was going on before. Writing these songs, I didn’t feel like, ‘fuck you, gotta get this feeling down’ … I was excited to talk about some of the things in Foil Deer. I was pretty happy writing it. We were on a break from tour, which was really nice.” Released in April on Carpark, Foil Deer is the Massachusetts 4-piece’s most accomplished album to date.
The Spook School, Try to be Hopeful (Fortuna Pop!)
Try to Be Hopeful, the title of The Spook School’s sophomore album, is not a statement of intent in the band’s able hands but a command. Lyrically, the Scottish quartet directly challenges assumptions about sex, gender, sexuality, love and other issues affecting the queer community, which listeners may find inspiring or confirming, especially if they’ve always felt pushed to the margins of not just the mainstream but of subculture as well.
Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy (Merge Records)
The Jersey punx truly one-upped themselves with The Most Lamentable Tragedy: a 93-minute, 28-track rock opera that Patrick Stickles has described as semi-autobiographically covering daily struggles with manic depression, and how that impacts interactions, creativity, and decision making. As Nicolo Porcello wrote back in April, stand-out album cut “Dimed Out” takes this head on, the band’s recognizable slurry-pop punk firmly in place. The new record is a firm addition to the canon Titus has built over their past 10 years.
Trans FX, Into The Blu (Perennial / K Records)
Olympia’s Trans FX released their excellent Into The Blu LP on Perennial/K Records, the first in a series of co-releases from two of the best labels in the Northwest. The album is full of perfectly gloomy, alien pop for all of us who’ve ever felt like there’s a layer of glass between us and the social world; not fitting into any scene, even the ones that declare they’re built by and for us weirdos.
Upset, ’76 EP (Lauren Records)
Upset is the songwriting project of Ali Koehler (formerly of Vivian Girls, Best Coast), joined by a supergroup of Rachel Galgiardi (Slutever) on bass, Patty Schemel (formerly of Hole) on drums, and Lauren Freeman on guitar. Following their 2013 debut full-length for Don Giovanni, the band followed up this spring with a new tape out on West Coast punk label, Lauren Records. The EP, ’76, is short, sweet, and timeless. Koehler sings cathartically, beckoning both shit-kicking and sunny group-yell-along types of excitement — a rare feat.
Vexx, Give and Take EP (Katorga Works)
In April, Katorga Works put out Olympia punk outfit Vexx’s Give and Take 7-inch, adding to their roll of powerhouse releases for the year (following SHEER MAG’s II). The release is a less crusty and less agitated step forward for the four members, incorporating lively, creative guitar work and Maryjane Dunphe’s dominant voice into a pounding rhythm section that commands attention. Dunphe doesn’t so much shout or howl her lyrics as she does emphatically haunt them out.
Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp (Merge Records)
“What do I want? What do I think? Nobody hears,” sings Katie Crutchfield on “Poison,” one of the most cutting moments of her new album, Ivy Tripp. “Travel the world ivy tripping with no spotlight,” she continues. It’s a light-and-dark inward-looking rock song that meditates on feelings of confusion and disorientation, speaking directly to Crutchfield’s intentions for Ivy Tripp: “I think a running theme is steadying yourself on shaky ground and reminding yourself that you have control in situations that seem overwhelming,” she said early this year. “Or just being cognizant in moments of deep confusion or sadness, and learning to really feel emotions and to grow from that.”
Worriers, Imaginary Life (Don Giovanni Records)