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    Podcasts: This Is How We Do It: Oneohtrix Point Never

    Our podcast series This Is How We Do It features artists talking about the secrets behind their creative process and is presented in partnership with WeTransfer. 


    Considering the cryptic nature of the rollout for Daniel Lopatin’s latest album as Oneohtrix Point NeverGarden of Delete, I was surprised by how open the electronic visionary was in discussing its extra-musical world. Loosely based on his own experiences as a teenager, Lopatin used social media and dated blogging platforms to create a fictional Internet universe centered on a semi-autobiographical character, Ezra, and his favorite band, Kaoss Edge. Garden of Delete might be Lopatin’s most human record; it’s certainly his most personal. But how did Ezra come alive? And what kind of teenager was Lopatin? We discussed that and more during our 45-minute interview.

    Click the button below to download the podcast along with some exclusive photos and two songs Lopatin's longtime collaborator Nate Boyce wrote and performed as the fictional band Kaoss Edge:


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    Staff Lists: The Year in News 2015

    Ah, 2015—another year of shocking heartbreaks, childish beefs, and WTFs. We’ve compiled a few of the year's most captivating news stories, with accompanying comics by illustrator Johnny Sampson. This is by no means a complete list of the biggest, or most important, moments of the last 12 months. But these were some of the ones that made us laugh the loudest, cry the hardest, and scratch our heads the most dramatically.


    Drake Vs. Meek Mill

    The Players: The Players: Drake and his own personal Cyrano, Quentin Miller; Meek Mill, and—in absentia—his girlfriend, Nicki Minaj.
    The Stakes: Drake’s authenticity, Meek Mill’s talent.
    The Nitty Gritty: Meek Mill accuses Drake of using a ghostwriter, Quentin Miller. Drake releases two responses to Meek: “Charged Up” and “Back to Back”. Meek comes back with a forgettable response track and some forgettable on-stage freestyles. Drake then turns Meek into a meme at OVO Fest and the Internet goes nuts.
    The Resolution: Drake churns out a bunch of hits, Meek Mill ostensibly loses, and Nicki Minaj pretty much hates the entire thing (and continues to be a better rapper than both of them).


    Tyler, the Creator Is Not Welcome in Britain and Australia

    What Did Tyler Do This Time: Not much, actually. Organizations and governments in Australia and the United Kingdom have taken umbrage with older lyrics and previous behavior.
    What Was the UK’s Rationale:“The Home Secretary has the power to exclude an individual if she considers that his or her presence in the UK is not conducive to the public good.” Tyler claimed that they cited lyrics from 2009.
    What About Australia: Well, actually, he wasn’t banned, but the feminist group Collective Shout campaigned for the government to deny his visa due to "songs advocating rape and extreme violence against women.” He ended up canceling a tour.
    Haven’t We Heard This Story Before: In 2013, Tyler ignited a political firestorm in Australia.
    And What Have We Learned: Government officials and feminist organizations aren’t Tyler fans. Tyler still claims he’s just playing. Free speech is complicated.



    Ryan Adams Covers Taylor Swift’s 1989

    The Players: Ryan Adams, Taylor Swift, and weirdly, Father John Misty.
    What Happened: Adams decided to go ahead and cover the entirety of Swift’s latest album, 1989.
    How Did Swift Feel About It?: It’s probably safe to say that she was excited.
    How Was Adams’ Version:Eh.
    What Did Father John Misty Do: He released a couple covers of Adams’ covers of Swift in the style of the Velvet Underground. He quickly took them down, telling everybody that it was because Lou Reed visited him in a dream and told him to. Later, he revealed that he was trolling everyone.
    The Moral: Father John Misty seems kinda fun.



    We Didn’t Get Those Albums We Were Promised

    The Players: Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Rihanna.
    The Crime: They all told us that albums were coming, but none of them came.
    How Does Everyone Feel About This: Betrayed.
    Do We Know When Those Albums Will Show Up Yet: Nope. Though (fingers crossed) Rihanna’s Anti seems to be closer to an actual release, or at least that’s what Samsung would like us to believe.
    And How Does That Make Us Feel: Like tweeting melodramatically in all caps.
    Maybe Next Year They’ll Come: Hey, maybe! And maybe those Jai Paul and Jay Electronica albums will finally be released in Neveruary.




    Kanye Did Everything But Release an Album

    Kanye, the Designer: It was Yeezy Season twice, with two clothing lines and lots of Yeezy Boosts.
    Kanye, the Nostalgic: He performed 808s & Heartbreak at a pair of Hollywood Bowl concerts and then came through with a renewed version of "Say You Will".
    Dr. West: He got an honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
    Kanye, the American Idol Contestant:Seriously.
    Kanye, the Presidential Candidate: He announced his (maybe actually serious!) bid for the presidency in 2020.
    Kanye, Respecter of Artistry: Because sometimes, Beck needs to get told.
    Kanye, Doubly Proud Papa: Welcome, Saint West!
    But Wait, Was There Any New Music?: Well, yeah. He actually released "All Day" and "Only One", and played "Wolves" (with Sia and Vic Mensa), and "Fade" (with Ty Dolla $ign and Post Malone). He also appeared on or produced tracks by Rihanna, the Weeknd, Big Sean, Travis Scott, and Vic Mensa.


    Dr. Dre Finally Puts Out An Album—But Not Detox

    If It’s Not Detox, What Is It?:Compton, essentially the soundtrack to the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, is an actually very good album. It’s got guest spots from Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Eminem, and tons of young rappers and producers.
    What Happened to Detox?: "I didn’t like it. It wasn’t good."
    With the Movie and Album, What Else Happened?: He started a radio show, put out some unreleased material, got sued by Jerry Heller, and was forced to acknowledge his history of domestic violence. He also probably continued making a bunch of money.
    Should You Forget About Dre: No, don’t.



    Nicki Minaj vs. Taylor Swift (Featuring Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus)

    Nicki Accuses the VMAs of Racism: When the "Anaconda" video was snubbed for nominations for Video of the Year and Best Choreography at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, Minaj took to Twitter to voice her disappointment. "If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year," she tweeted. She also said, "When the 'other' girls drop a video that breaks records and impacts culture they get that nomination," and "Black women influence pop culture so much but are rarely rewarded for it."
    Taylor Took It Personally: "I've done nothing but love & support you. It's unlike you to pit women against each other."
    Nicki Said Taylor Was Missing the Point: "Huh? U must not be reading my tweets. Didn't say a word about u. I love u just as much. But u should speak on this."
    What Happened Next: Katy Perry, rumored target of "Bad Blood", throws in her two cents. And then Nicki performs with Taylor at the VMAs.
    And That’s All, Right?: For Taylor, yes. But Nicki almost immediately turned her attention toward Miley Cyrus, who ran her mouth to the New York Times.
    Who Won:Grace Jones.


    The Untimely Passing of A$AP Yams

    Losing One of Hip-Hop’s Greatest Minds: Yams was 26 when he died in January. He wasn’t just A$AP Mob’s founder—he was their aesthetic and spiritual center (and self-described "Yoda"). 
    Homages to Yams: There was a massive outpouring from artists on Twitter, but the most overt homage was A$AP Rocky’s At.Long.Last.A$AP, which was executive produced by Yams and closes with the sound of the late mastermind’s voice. A$AP Ferg also created a painting in tribute.


    Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” Soundtracks the Black Lives Matter Movement

    The Music Video: Our pick for clip of the year ends with Kendrick being shot out of the sky by a white police officer.
    The BET Awards Performance: Kendrick performs the song from atop a cop car. Fox News pundits didn’t approve, but the rapper responded, “How can you take a song that's about hope and turn it into hatred?”
    The Song Is Chanted at Protests: In Cleveland, D.C., and elsewhere.
    What’s Next: Change?



    The Greatest Rapper Alive Beefs With the Other Greatest Rapper Alive

    And Not Just on Record: Young Thug and Birdman were named as conspirators in Lil Wayne bus shooting.
    What Happened?: In April, Lil Wayne’s tour bus was shot multiple times in Atlanta. No one was hurt.
    What Do Young Thug and Birdman Have to Do With It?: Young Thug’s tour manager Jimmy Winfrey was charged with the shooting, but in an indictment, both Thug and Birdman were accused of being behind the attack.
    A Brief Primer on Wayne vs. Birdman: In January, Wayne sued Birdman and Cash Money (Young Thug is a Birdman loyalist) for $51 million and freedom from the label. Wayne and his lawyers claimed Cash Money violated his contract by withholding money he's owed for the delayed album Tha Carter V.
    A Brief Primer on Wayne vs. Thug: Their friendship turned sour as Thug began to align himself more with Birdman (including their partnership in Rich Gang). Thug tried to name a mixtape Carter 6, which did not sit well with Wayne. (It ended up being Barter 6.)


    Jack White’s Guacamolegate

    The Issue: A college newspaper published Jack White’s tour rider, which among other things, featured a very specific guacamole recipe.
    The Consequences: White’s booking company reportedly banned all of their acts from playing that university.
    White Defends Himself: In an irate letter posted on the Third Man site, White says the guacamole recipe was an inside joke from his tour manager, that people need to lay off trying to make him out to be a diva, and that tour riders are just a way to make life easier when you’re living in a "concrete bunker" for hours on end.
    How Pissed Did Jack Seem About the Avocado-Centric Media Swarm?: Very.






    Justin Bieber Apologizes for Everything

    Sorry, Oslo: For prematurely walking off stage—it was a rough week.
    Sorry, Ronda Rousey: For not taking that photo with your sister.
    Sorry, Stephen Colbert: For cancelling on your show, but sometimes life kicks our ass.
    Speaking of asses, sorry: For deleting that butt pic, but someone’s got to think of the kids.
    Sorry, world: For generally being kind of a dick.


    Adele Returns, No Longer Drunk Tweets

    Wait, Adele Used to Drunk Tweet?:Yes, but her management won’t let her do that anymore. :(
    What Adele Did This Year: Used a flip phone, worked with Tobias Jesso Jr. and Sia, traded barbs with Damon Albarn, made us all crave her "Hotline Bling" remix. Oh yeah, and finally put out her new album, 25.
    How Did That Album Do?: Really bad. JK!


    Tragedy Strikes Paris

    November 13, 2015: The unthinkable happens: Multiple terrorist shootings occur across Paris, including an attack at an Eagles of Death Metal concert at Le Bataclan. Eighty-nine people are killed, including EODM crew member Nick Alexander.
    The Band Responds: In a message, they declare that "love overshadows evil." They donate publishing royalties to the families of victims and encourage other artists to cover their song "I Love You All the Time".
    The World Responds: Many artists do, indeed, cover the song, or offer their own tributes.
    Eagles of Death Metal Return to Paris: The band members join U2 on stage at the AccorHotels Arena on December 7, covering Patti Smith’s "People Have the Power" and performing "I Love You All the Time".  Jesse Hughes declares from the stage, "We will never give up rock and rolling."



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    Interviews: Life on the Line: A Telephone Conversation With Erykah Badu

    Erykah Badu is a messenger, a medium, a macrocosm. As humanity toils from day-to-day, she is channeling the longview, seeing the continuum of mankind on an elongated timeline. She isn’t especially tuned into current events. Her awareness spans past, present, future. 

    Her latest signal, a mixtape called But You Caint Use My Phone, finds the 44-year-old tapping into what she calls “the primal wails and tribal moans” that inform her artistic being. It’s a digital trip through the frequencies that power our cellular lives, but it’s also warm and earthy, brimming with birdsong and the crunch of footsteps on soil.

    As she tells me across a crackling line, when she’s not mapping out a universal rhythm with her music, she’s driving her and André 3000’s son Seven to school in her hometown of Dallas, helping pregnant women naturally deliver their children into the world as a doula, or showing up to nursing homes and singing gospel hymns to those who are preparing to leave this world for another. She is alpha and omega, a glorified soul with a heart that beats.

    Pitchfork: My favorite moment on But You Caint Use My Phone is your duet with André, “Hello”, which reworks the Isley Brothers song “Hello It’s Me”. How did that come about?

    Erykah Badu: André and I are still best of friends, always have been and always will be. When our 18-year-old son, Seven, started high school, we both agreed to be in the same city, so André is in Dallas all the time, and we're always all together doing something. Usually, André takes him to school, but when he’s busy working, I do. Seven was very instrumental in helping me put the ideas together for the mixtape, because we would ride to school and listen to music, going through SoundCloud, checking out new artists.

    One day, I was sharing my ideas with Seven and André in the living room, and they are always really excited to share ideas with me—especially when they see that I'm percolating. They threw out a whole lot of songs to me once they figured out I was doing a phone theme with the mixtape, and André goes, “What about the Isley Brothers’ ‘Hello It’s Me’?” and I was like "Yeah!" So I plugged my phone in the speaker jack and played it, and we all started singing. Of course, the melody is totally different from how I did it, but it's a classic and a favorite in the house.

    But André didn't think of being a part of the song at first. He just wanted to hear my take on it. So after Seven went off to school, I went over to [producer] Zach Witness' house and had him do a piano version of it that was just 30 seconds long, and I intended it to be a short interlude. At that point my vocals weren't in it, and I sent that music to André and said, “This is what I came up with, isn't it pretty.” And he said, “Wow, it is pretty.” A couple of days later, he said, “Erykah, I'm riding around listening to this every day, I can't get it out of my mind.” And I said, “Well, maybe you should put a verse to it.” 

    Then André went over to Zach's house and put a verse to it—I was out of town—and they sent it to me over email. I was like, “You have totally annihilated the track! This is it!” I got home and recorded my "hello hello" parts, and that was supposed to be it. But after we heard ourselves together, we both thought: This is a duet. Then André said out loud, “We need to finish it.” So we got in my living room and started at 11 p.m. and finished at five in the morning. Seven was walking in and out of the pantry, getting snacks late into the night, just watching over us. It all happened that night.

    After we finished, we were very silent. We knew we had created something special, that it was more than we thought it would be. At that point, I said, “This is no longer a mixtape, this is an event.”

    Pitchfork: What does Seven think of the whole project?

    EB: He think it's fire. [laughs] He loves it, he believes in it. He knows when I’m tapped in again and feeling that mojo as an artist. All of my children are the same way I am. They're little artists too, in their own ways. They're happy to see a fellow artist complete something that they really like. Through their patience, they’re showing me how much they support what's going on, because I'm having to do a lot of work right now. 

    Pitchfork: How did Seven inspire you on this record?

    EB: When I was working on the first track, the "Hotline Bling" remix, I wasn't doing it for a mixtape, I was doing it because I wanted to communicate with his generation. I describe it like this: I used to watch “The Flintstones”, “Popeye”, and “Looney Tunes” religiously because I loved the writing and the color and the minimal sound effects and the music. That was my comedy hour. But when I sit my kids down to watch it, they appreciate it and laugh with me, but it doesn’t quite keep their attention because of frequency. Their minds are vibrating a little bit faster than the minds of the artists who drew those pictures, and the technology reflects it. That’s when I understood: My truth is relevant and my songs are relevant, but I have to recalibrate myself and speed up my vibrations so that I can communicate with the voice of this generation.

    It was Drake’s song that helped me reboot the music hard drive inside of me. Once I embodied that, I was off and running because I knew how to use the frequencies to fit my tastes, and I was able to manipulate Ableton and sound effects and voice boxes and all these things. I’ve always tampered with that, but not to this extent. Of course, New Amerykah Part One was a psychedelic trip, but it had an analog base. With But You Caint Use My Phone, I didn’t use any analog-based material, all digi. 

    Pitchfork: It’s easy for people to just stay in their comfort zones.

    EB: I’m pretty mutable as a human being, period—if you put me on Pluto, I can figure it out. People who say that music is dead or hip-hop is dead are refusing to evolve. And if you want to relate to a certain audience or generation, you have to speak their language. I truly believe that. Also, the teenagers now are my babies because their parents played me for them, just like I am a Chaka Khan baby because my mom played her for me.

    Pitchfork: You recruited the rapper ItsRoutine to impersonate Drake on the mixtape. Did you try to reach out to Drake himself to rap on it?

    EB: Not necessarily. I talk to Drake once a week. He’s my friend, and I told him about ItsRoutine, and he laughed and made a joke that he didn’t want these guys taking up his tea time. 

    Pitchfork: Do you think Drake feels like he missed out?

    EB: Absolutely not. He’s with me every step of the way. We’re not finished—you thought I was through?! [laughs]

    "I’m pretty mutable as a human being—if you put me on Pluto, I can figure it out."


    —Erykah Badu

    Pitchfork: Aside from this tape, are you also working on an album?

    EB: I have so much music that I do. Just like how a visual artist is always sketching something but they might not share it, I'm always writing songs or coming up with melodic lines on piano or guitar. It's therapy. It's always happening. And when I get ready to do an album, that means I have something to say for the sake of words, and I listen back to all of the things I've been creating and pull things from out of the air to go with them. It's almost like I start creating the album before I even think about creating it. I use elements from my recent notebooks and things I'm feeling at the time and put together a body of work, including the artwork, the sequencing, a video. All those things go hand-in-hand now, it's like putting together a huge piece of art using all of the things I have in my art box. 

    Right now I'm still in the sketching phase, but what's tricky about that is once I start, everything meets me halfway and starts to finish itself because the elements were always around me. It's weird, but if I decide to do an album, then the ideas start fitting themselves together. I consider myself a nice, slow burn. Plus, it’s not a race. And I have a lot to share. 

    Pitchfork: You’ve also been working as a doula for quite a while now, helping expectant mothers through natural childbirth. It made me wonder: How does someone get Erykah Badu to be their doula?

    EB: [laughs] It just kind of happens. I don’t plan how many people I work with. I don’t charge anything. It’s for my own learning, and I just enjoy being the welcoming committee. I became a doula by default. I had Seven naturally, at home, and a couple of years later I was traveling through Europe, and one of my best friends, Afya, who is the wife of stic.man from dead prez, went into labor. I just wanted to be there with her, so I rerouted my flights and came to Brooklyn. She had already been in labor for about 10 hours, and the whole labor ended up lasting 52 hours. No anesthesia, just pure willpower and whatever else the midwife who was there had to offer. My main focus at that moment was to bring her some kind of peace and strength and will to push forward, because I know how hard that is. I ended up staying with her for 42 hours and I wasn’t sleepy. I naturally knew what to do, and it was then that I figured out that this was something I can do that makes me feel so fulfilled. 

    After all, we don’t know where these babies are coming from—their souls, or their spirits of mind, or if they’re born wholly as soon as they get here—but whatever it is, I just want the environment to be one of tranquility for the mom and dad and everyone involved. A home birth is about being able to create exactly what you want, because it’s such a violent moment inside of the body that you want everything else to be as beautiful as it can be. So I started studying to be a doula and got my certification in 2011 and now I’m in training to become a midwife. I’m almost there and before I know it I’ll be able to open my own practice, if that’s what I desire.

    My work as a doula also extends all the way to the end of life. I sit at the bedsides of people who are passing on in hospices or nursing homes, for the people and families who want that kind of thing. When people are going on to the next plateau of whatever this thing is called life, I also want them to breathe easily, even if it’s the last one they take here with us. I guess I’m the welcoming committee and ushering committee.

    Pitchfork: Do you approach those two situations—birth and death—differently?

    EB: Whereas I want everything to be peaceful during a birth, I take the total opposite approach when I’m helping someone come to terms with leaving this place—I play Richard Pryor records. [laughs] Breathing becomes really easy when you’re laughing. It kick starts that feeling of joy, and I keep it going from there and help them remember things that are fun and help them forgive themselves and others. Sometimes their families are not present because they have not come to terms with the fact that they may never see their loved one again. So I make calls for them and let the children know that maybe this is a really good time to come hang out and talk and learn from this soul before they leave; I just know I wouldn’t want to be alone and afraid at that time.

    Pitchfork: How did you get involved with working in nursing homes?

    EB: Naturally. I just wandered into a nursing home one day, after I dropped my daughter off at dance class. I’ve done this kind of stuff since I was a kid; they usually have a piano in every nursing home, and I always wanted to perform for whoever would listen when I learned something. I grew to understand very early that a lot of these people who are in nursing homes are elderly and don’t have a lot of things that give them joy from day to day. But when I would come and play as a young person, they would just be so excited to see me. I would think, “Wow, this is important work that I’m doing here.” So I just carried that on into adulthood up to now.

    Pitchfork: Has anyone recognized you in a nursing home?

    EB: Sometimes. A lot of people have dementia, which is great, because then they don’t recognize me. [laughs]

    Pitchfork: Do you ever sing to them?

    EB: Yeah, definitely, during childbirth and hospice. I’ll sing gospel songs that my grandma taught me when I was younger, or something I’ve made up, or I’ll hum. I just play things that I think the audience will like.


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    Staff Lists: The Year in Quotes 2015

    This year’s collection of our favorite Pitchfork interview quotables features wisdom on navigating the #branding era while keeping your soul intact, fighting against the Internet’s isolating tendencies, how streaming is changing the way we listen to music, the joys of fandom, the ambiguousness of faith, and the eternal embarrassment of talking about constipation.


    “I feel fatigued by the concept that no art is safe from commercialism. Can’t I just experience something? I don’t want it to be branded. The thing that I crave is authenticity.” — Beach House’s Alex Scally


    “People are like, ‘A manager can make you more money.’ How? By playing sponsored events? Those aren’t cool. They don’t make good stories. They aren’t legacy-making.” — Fucked Up’s Sandy Miranda


    “A lot of bands believe there are certain paths you have to take towards success, and in the #branding era, a lot of those paths are paved with sponsorship money. But there are plenty of ways to work outside of those prescribed routes.” — Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis

    “People nowadays will skirmish their name up just to get a dollar. Nah, man—I ain’t about to compromise my integrity and how I feel on the inside about myself. Ain’t nothing like respect.”


    DJ Spinn

    “The financial rewards for DJing are huge compared to the little mental effort which you have to invest in it, and that is creepy as hell." — Daniel Wang


    "An ‘independent record label’ is an oxymoron. You sign an artist, and they’re no longer independent: Their rights are compromised." — Johnny Jewel 


    “By eliminating the entire economic game, we can regain that simple relationship to music when we have nothing to lose. We know that the industry has nothing more to offer us, so we take care of things another way.” — La Féline’s Agnès Gayraud on the French musical collective La Souterraine


    “All of these kinds of oppressions that capitalism deals out are necessary to keep capitalism going: Capitalism needs racism and sexism to support class. Capitalism works for very few people.” — The Coup’s Boots Riley

    "I want to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them: You’re not just imagining things. It’s tough. Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times."


    Björk

    “I have spent so long lying around in bed being miserable and hoping for something interesting to happen, and then when interesting things do happen, I get freaked out and wish for that quiet place again.” — Courtney Barnett


    "If I were really being myself, I’d just curl up in the corner and knit." — Shamir


    "I'd like to aim to be a hermit and I don't care if I have to be really anti-social and introverted to make it happen. It's a life goal." — Jessica Pratt 


    “When I think about popular culture now, I can’t help but think that we’re living in the age of loneliness. There’s this illusion that we all have instant access to each other, but we actually have no real connection.” — Madonna

    “I've never felt lonely since I got a dog.”

    “I’m obsessed with proverbs, because flexing is being able to say the most with the least amount of words.” — Earl Sweatshirt


    “Convention isn't awful, it's just not something that I really aspire to.” — Kim Gordon


    "If it sounds too new, then tomorrow, it will sound like yesterday." – Rick Rubin


    “If you say something so fucking profound and make it look so fucking easy, I fuck with you.” — Scarface

    “We are living in a time where things are presented as very transient, and streaming is definitely a way of reinforcing that. You have a temporary context with music rather than a tangible, long-term relationship.”

    “Streaming sites make listening to music very boring. I feel like all of them are the devil—asking which one you prefer is like asking which head of the hydra you like best.” — Sinkane


    "You see these products being launched and you’re like, 'Who the fuck put that out? Didn’t they realize that it fucking sucks?’” — Trent Reznor on the tech world 


    “Technically, the music industry could have launched something like Apple Music in the ‘90s, but it took them 15 years to figure it all out.” — How Music Got Free author Stephen Witt


    “Playlists are now the way we listen to music, and I can see a time coming when the playlist creator becomes just as important in the process as the artists being featured.” — Spotify user and playlist maker Jonathan Good

    "I'm a black belt in taekwondo. I've never had to unleash my fury on someone, but I definitely could."


    Tinashe

    "My favorite karaoke song is 'Walkin' on the Sun' by Smash Mouth. It's one of the few songs where, when I hear it, I'm pretty sure I'm technically a better singer than the actual person singing it." — Tom Scharpling


    “There’s too much weed smoking in hip-hop—I can't do it. I'm not very good with weed.” — Jamie xx


    “I can't hold up Taylor Swift as being either a figure of light or a figure of darkness because I feel like it brings down my poem to a level that’s too mundane.” — Destroyer’s Dan Bejar


    “For some reason, anything to do with bowels and shitting is incredibly shameful. It just seems like the least attractive thing in a human being, to be like, ‘I’m chronically constipated.’” — Majical Cloudz’s Devon Welsh

    “I consider myself to be a person of faith, but my relationship to God and spirituality is more mysterious than it ever was before. I’m a Christ-following mystic.”

    “I’m definitely not religious, though I find a lot of beauty in it; I’m going to be forever confused about how I spend part of my life enjoying spiritual music, but I don’t believe in God.” — Floating Points’ Sam Shepherd


    “My love of God is fundamental, but its manifestations in my life and the practices of it are constantly changing. I find incredible freedom in my faith.” — Sufjan Stevens


    "If people can make records that are about cars, drugs, women, and money, and that makes sense, then I can make songs that are about misogyny, misandry, homosexuality, transphobia, Black Lives Matter, and all that should make sense, too." – Le1f


    “It's not about living my life as a boy or a girl—but I'm also not trans—it's just that one day you wake up feeling masculine, and one day you wake up feeling feminine. The flickering in between those two states is what's most fertile for me.” — Arca


    “I disagree very strongly with people saying ‘that battle is over.’ If you’ve started a battle, I don’t think it ever ends. And if you believe that you have nothing to fight for, that just means the people in power, and the people with money, can sneak anything into your life. Everything can be taken away from you.” — Jenny Hval


    “Life’s too short to be shoehorned into a box that isn’t for you.” — Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry

    “There's something that feels very timeless about fandom. It's where I sense the most optimism. It is just allowing yourself to be receptive. So many things can be filtered through fandom—joy, compassion, love.”

    “It fascinates me that, when something hurtful happens, you hate the person you love the most so much that you want to kill them. You really do. And then, of course, it’s not a good look. But everybody has that feeling, and it’s very real.” — Peaches


    “Love is like an antibody to narcissism and self-oblivion and not knowing yourself.” — Father John Misty


    "We’ve always been talking to each other through our music. Lana Del Rey is the girl in my music, and I am the guy in her music." — The Weeknd


    "We are becoming really disconnected from our planet and our bodies. The technologies around us conspire to distract us from what really matters—community, the environment, love, joy. The thing-ness of reality is very important, and if I have a lifelong goal, it’s to try to help people stay aware of being in this world, in a body, for the very short time that we’re here.” — Robert Rich


    0 0

    Staff Lists: The 100 Best Tracks of 2015

    Presenting our selections for The 100 Best Tracks of 2015, as voted by our writers and editors. Any track that was released in 2015 or had its greatest impact in the U.S. during this year was eligible.

    Dâm-Funk

    “Free”

    Stones Throw

    100

    Funk has always concerned itself with liberation, and Dâm-Funk has long been an advocate for funk-as-freedom; he’d like nothing more than to lift your mind, your body, and your soul away from whatever’s holding it down. "Free", the closing track of Dâm’s wordless STFU EP, is a luxuriant ride from the boulevard to beyond the stratosphere. Over a bed of head-snap drums, twinkling Casios, and blunted bass, Dâm breezes down the block and off into the unknown. The eight-minute "Free" is a masterfully composed track, tidy as a cleanroom and filthy as a Black & Mild-stuffed ashtray, every chiming piano and wriggling keytar hanging, seemingly, in midair. More than that, though, it’s a testament to Dâm’s ability to make the music of the past—the mechanized precision of post-disco R&B and the subwoofer-decimating synths of left-coast g-funk—feel an awful lot like the future. It’s like the man said: Open up your funky mind, and you can fly. —Paul Thompson

    Dâm-Funk: "Free" (via SoundCloud)

    Unknown Mortal Orchestra

    “Can't Keep Checking My Phone”

    Jagjaguwar

    99

    On Multi-Love, Ruban Nielson applied his knack for layered hooks to his own polyamorous entanglement. Multi-Love’s jittery core untangles the anxiety of balancing partners, of unlearning the traditional forms of hetero marriage, and of doing so while that phone in your pocket begs your eyes to stay glued to its screen.

    "Can’t Keep Checking My Phone" rattles with a nu-disco beat, finding its pulse in an octave-hopping bass line. Nielson’s production leaves plenty of open air for his blocky vocal phrasings to occupy as he stacks syllables that mimic a clipped long-distance conversation or shards of SMS swapping. All the while, a pitched-down version of his own voice haunts his words, as guilt and a yearning for freedom orbit each other. If "Can’t Keep Checking My Phone" isn’t the first disco slapper about wanting to chuck your iPhone in the nearest harbor, it’s got to be the most unexpectedly tender. —Sasha Geffen

    Unknown Mortal Orchestra: "Can't Keep Checking My Phone" (via SoundCloud)

    Protomartyr

    “Dope Cloud”

    Hardly Art

    98

    Proof that there’s life in post-punk beyond basic retreads of bands beloved in the 1980s, Detroit’s Protomartyr have restless energy to spare, both in their captivating live performances and their sharply structured songwriting. "Dope Cloud", built around propulsive drumming, a rickety and memorable guitar riff, and blown-out choruses, is both an ode to and a warning about escapism as a survival strategy. Vocalist Joe Casey’s perfectly blasé lyrics and delivery remind us that though it may feel good in the short run to plunge headfirst into hedonism, and that feeling good has value, it’s really not much of a lifelong solution to our continual search as a species for meaning and utility in this random and heartless universe. —Jes Skolnik

    Protomartyr: "Dope Cloud" (via SoundCloud)

    Frankie Cosmos

    “Young”

    Bayonet

    97

    One of the nice parts about getting older is watching younger people discover things that have been second nature to you for years. Among college-aged musicians playing the sort of lunchpail indie pop they were born too late to hear in the '90s, Frankie Cosmos seems like an outlier. Brief, simple, and direct in word but vast in sentiment, her best songs have the stature of haiku—it takes longer to hear them than it does to listen. "With this I’m scraping by/ I guess it’s cute that I tried," she sings on "Young", a self-portrait of a wallflower who seems to prefer her parties from a safe distance at the top of the stairs, as gentle as a lullaby and as sharply worded as hardcore. It all comes and goes in two minutes, with a five-second silence in the middle. Because wisdom is nice but time—time is of the essence. —Mike Powell

    Frankie Cosmos: "Young" (via SoundCloud)

    Isaiah Rashad

    “Nelly”

    Top Dawg Entertainment

    96

    Defying the conventional wisdom that rappers need to flood the market with as much material as possible in order to stay on the radar, Isaiah Rashad has kept a low profile since releasing his sleeper debut Cilvia Demo in early 2014, limiting his output to just a few guest verses and this very subdued single. "Nelly" is Rashad’s down-to-earth answer to every overly enthusiastic song comparing love to a hit single. "We can’t be no number one," he confesses upfront to neighborhood girl who appears to share his lot in life, "but we can be the jam." Like most Rashad tracks, it’s dense with autobiographical detail—in just two leisurely verses, he details his modest upbringing, his practical view of romance, and the low ceiling he sees hanging over his career. He can’t promise the world, and he refuses to feed the false hope that he’ll become a star and magically make this poor girl’s problems disappear. The best he can offer is some empathy, and someone to share a blunt and pass the time with. True to his word, "Nelly" wasn’t a number one hit—not even close—but it was, in its own understated way, a jam. —Evan Rytlewski

    Isaiah Rashad: "Nelly"

    WOKE

    “The Lavishments of Light Looking” [ft. George Clinton]

    Adult Swim

    95

    After the horror of the November attacks in the French capital, Thundercat released a gorgeous track simply titled "Paris". It made its way around the web, and some admirers, in their private moments, griped about the fact that it lasted hardly more than a minute. But Thundercat was involved with another, equally moving track this year with a far more significant runtime: "The Lavishments of Light Looking", which was released by the supergroup WOKE (Flying Lotus, two members of Shabazz Palaces, and Thundercat on bass).

    The track was a paean to open-mindedness, approachable in its phantasmagoric psychedelia even as it preached transcendence through music. Its explicit spirituality was a balm for those aching from a news cycle filled with demagoguery, suspicion, and fear. When artists attempt to be political, the risk is often that of reductionism: politics are easier to translate into a speech than into a song. But with "Lavishments", WOKE managed not to evoke the anxieties of the time, but to repel them, appealing instead to a higher sentiment. —Jonah Bromwich

    WOKE: "The Lavishments of Light Looking" [ft. George Clinton] (via SoundCloud)

    DJ Koze

    “XTC”

    Pampa

    94

    There are two sides to DJ Koze: the hypnotizing shaman who spins one groove into another with ultimate finesse, and the winking illusionist who laughs at the shaman idea and teases you for your mindless devotion. Viewed alongside the finely tuned whimsy of his excellent DJ-Kicks mix from this year, "XTC" is a pretenseless, steady burner. Its lush, trance-inducing atmosphere, detailed with Koze’s typical quirky percussion, makes it one of his most straightforwardly satisfying recent productions. But it's just like Koze not to leave it there: a woman’s voice, ruminating on what ecstasy might provide for someone seeking enlightenment, emerges out of the mix. "I heard you say once that a lie is sweet in the beginning, and bitter in the end," she murmurs. "Is the drug like the lie, and meditation the truth? Or am I missing something that could really help me?"

    It’s a straightforward monologue with ambiguous implications. Is Koze cultivating a lie? Is he trying to reveal the truth? As the track progresses, it gets sharper and toothier, generating more and more friction, until eventually the tidal harmonic washes transition into something jittery and obsessive, like a person compulsively playing with a zipper. The question lingers, a nagging dichotomy that nods towards the self-aware state of electronic music. How long will it be before intellectualism and hedonism collapse back together? Are we missing something that could really help us? —Abigail Garnett

    DJ Koze: "XTC" (via SoundCloud)

    Bully

    “I Remember”

    Columbia / StarTime

    93

    "I Remember" is a song of betrayal, about how the more we share, the more vulnerable we become. Each line carries a small part of a much larger story, and as fragments of hurt whiz past like spinning knives, it mirrors the process of memory itself. Bully's Alicia Bognanno sings in a melodic scream that any '90s alt-rocker could envy over basic-but-catchy punk chords, and the spaces between her declarations hold even more than the actual words: "I remember getting too fucked up...I remember showing up at your house....I remember the way your sheets smelt." That's how our minds work: a picture, a smell, a taste, a box of photos—all become imprinted, the senses bound to feelings that are later assembled into narrative, leading then to the long process of figuring out what it all meant and what happens now. —Mark Richardson

    Bully: "I Remember" (via SoundCloud)

    Cool Uncle

    “Break Away” [ft. Jessie Ware]

    Fresh Young Minds / EMPIRE

    92

    With the mythology built into pop music fandom, it can be easy to fall into a "born too late" mindset, where you believe that the music made before your time is somehow more sincere, more real. Obviously, this is bullshit, and every generation has its own version of this FOMO, but sometimes revisiting old sounds yields something so spectacular that the retro-worship urge is irresistible. With Cool Uncle, Grammy-winning R&B producer Jack Splash teamed up with soul singer Bobby Caldwell, who has been quietly releasing records since the late '70s, and hit this precise sweet spot. From the staccato electric piano line, to the swishy cymbals to the background horn section, "Break Away" sounds so pointedly retro you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a cut from some obscure compilation of forgotten slow jams. But the presence of Jessie Ware, who owes considerable debt to Caldwell's contemporaries, gives "Break Away" an undoubtedly modern flair. While it would have still been a brilliant track sung solo, Ware's butter-smooth vocals not only hold their own against Caldwell's seasoned tenor, but form an ideal partnership. It's a perfect balance of then and now. —Cameron Cook

    Cool Uncle: "Break Away" [ft. Jessie Ware]

    Kamaiyah

    “How Does It Feel”

    self-released

    91

    Kamaiyah is a rapper and singer from Oakland with only a couple of songs to her name, and somehow one of them is already perfect. "How Does It Feel" bubbles like the Moët she drinks in the video, a song about the good life from someone who doesn't live it. The music zooms giddily up a West Coast rap highway, touching on electro, G-funk, and the Bay Area sound. Kamaiyah sing-raps about the most American feeling of all: "I wonder/ How does it feel to be rich?" It is celebratory, yearning, triumphant, and bottomlessly sad all at once. It will sound as good the day you get fired and get day-drunk at a TGI Fridays as the day you hire a party bus to celebrate your promotion. It is a song about perseverance and hunger, about ambition and appetite, and every other emotion that has kept the flame alive in hip-hop since it’s inception. Not a bad introduction.  —Jayson Greene

    Kamaiyah: "How Does It Feel" (via SoundCloud)

    Ty Dolla $ign

    “Blasé” [ft. Future and Rae Sremmurd]

    Atlantic

    90

    Despite taking place in Los Angeles, Ty Dolla $ign’s opus Free TC most resembles a Broadway play, complete with a wide-eyed, scene-establishing opener, a Babyface-assisted aria, and a closing song literally titled "Finale". The many moving parts hit some kind of crescendo with "Blasé", featuring Future and Rae Sremmurd, which loses all context on the radio and in DJ setlists, but even then is perceivable as part of a larger core. The propulsive banger is something of an outlier in Ty’s long, varied discography—he’s never aimed for a radio hit without leaning on West Coast slap, and "Blasé" is pure blurry, Atlanta-inspired low end. The hook is all about twisting typical hip-hop boasts into "who cares?" declarations—we’re in the club, we’re buying bottles, we’re driving Maseratis, blasé blasé blasé. There’s a slightly menacing tinge in everyone’s voice that makes it seem like this good time might be the last time: "I ain’t scared to die, on my dead homies", Ty sings, straining to hit his upper register. Ty Dolla $ign has made a career out of writing about his needs and how they mingle with disposability—toot it and boot it, how many girls can fit in his cabana, these hoes ain’t loyal—and here he sleepily lands on the most raucous song of his career while sounding like a somnambulant party machine, the guy still going well past 2 a.m. on a Wednesday. But what of it? —Matthew Ramirez

    Ty Dolla $ign: "Blasé" [ft. Future and Rae Sremmurd] (via SoundCloud)

    Natalie Prass

    “My Baby Don’t Understand Me”

    Spacebomb

    89

    What do you do when you realize you have nothing in common with the person you love, when it suddenly hits you that your entire relationship has been a slow process of growing apart? Is there any going back after a realization like that? Natalie Prass isn’t singing in hypotheticals on the lavishly orchestrated opener to her debut album—she really needs to know, and she’s posing the questions to you directly: "Where do you go when the only home you know is with a stranger?".

    For all the Dusty in Memphis comparisons her album invited, Prass isn’t a belter like Springfield. She’s got a small, pleasant voice, the kind that doesn’t so much sing over other instruments as draw them in, and on "My Baby Don’t Understand Me", a magnificent congregation of strings, horns, and woodwinds shows up to console her, to offer hope when she needs it most. Like so many classic soul songs, it starts plaintively then picks itself up, and in the spirit of Gladys Knight, it ends redemptively with that most bittersweet symbol of farewells and fresh starts: a train. —Evan Rytlewski

    Natalie Prass: "My Baby Don't Understand Me"

    Shamir

    “Demon”

    XL

    88

    Not all great loves make you a better person. Nestled between the party tracks of Shamir’s debut Ratchet is secret weapon "Demon", a downturned love song that draws its fire from the underworld. "I’ve gone and sold my soul/ If I’m a demon, baby, you’re the beast that made me", Shamir sings over one of Ratchet’s sparser beats, "Falling from grace, but falling oh so gracefully". Dressed in sensual tones, "Demon" flips the lover-as-savior narrative on its head. Shamir isn’t looking for redemption, or to be ushered out of a past life into a purer one. Love is a means and an end in itself—and if it happens to corrupt you irreversibly along the way, so be it. —Sasha Geffen

    Shamir: "Demon"

    Tate Kobang

    “Bank Rolls (Remix)”

    300 Entertainment / D1 Entertainment

    87

    Regional rap hits often feel casual and lived-in. If Tate Kobang's feathery "Bank Rolls (Remix)" feels a little extra so, it's because Baltimore's been inhabiting this beat for more than a decade now: it was sourced from an old Tim Trees track produced by Rod Lee, an artist who knows something about being a local hero. Originally a short freestyle, the lyrics are dotted heavily with neighborhoods and street names, but Kobang abstains from boasts and shit-talking. The general mood is "I have friends in lots of these places!", and when Kobang expanded the track upon signing a label deal, the line he spun into a quasi-chorus was, "I love my city/ Ask about me and I bet they know me." 

    As baldly personable as Kobang comes off, the star of the track is Lee's beat, a minimal funk oddity that bears the same relationship to, say, the Neptunes' productions as the Ramones do to the Supremes: a stilted, charming facsimile. The watery Rhodes piano lick that accompanies the chorus acts as a sublime counterpoint to the snub-nosed bass bursts. It's a beat that deserved a second life, strong enough not just to hit the same city twice but to propel a favorite son forward. —Andrew Gaerig

    Tate Kobang: "Bank Rolls (Remix)"

    Savages

    “The Answer”

    Matador

    86

    The first single from Savages' forthcoming album is an exercise in tension-building and suspense—no small feat in the context of a lunging, steel-toe-booted mosh-pit of a song. Gemma Thompson's buzzsaw guitar keeps moving away from its central chord and immediately dodging back to it, with a rhythm that lands just off the beat. (When she finally breaks free of that chord's gravity, more than a minute into the song, it's like a smack to the face.) Thompson, Fay Milton, and Ayse Hassan lock into the song's high-friction riff in a mode that's way too rare these days; for all the comparisons Savages get to late-'70s British post-punk, their rhythm section is closer to the obsessively precise mania of the Jesus Lizard.

    What, then, is the answer that Jehnny Beth is whooping and snarling about? Love, but not the fuzzy kind. "The Answer" is about love as a cruel obligation, as fuel for corrosive jealousy, as the gift other people get that you know would ruin you. "If you don't love me you don't love anybody", Beth keeps repeating to someone—or to herself. Whether it's a hope or a fear, it's a desperate one. —Douglas Wolk

    Savages: "The Answer"

    Lower Dens

    “To Die in L.A.”

    Ribbon Music

    85

    According to singer Jana Hunter, the initial writing sessions for Lower Dens third full-length were not a merry time. "We hadn’t played together for a while, and we were in a cold, dark space—physically and emotionally," she explained earlier this year. Somewhere along the line, the Baltimore-based band realized that it had fallen into a kind of bad-vibe feedback loop. They took a breather and reconvened a month later with a new goal—to avoid writing miserable music while feeling miserable.

    There’s no telling where "To Die in L.A." fell in this process, but I’m guessing it came after the break. The song has many strengths—it's catchy, economical, and perfectly paced. It makes lush and melodic pop seem like a natural extension of Lower Dens’ minimalist aesthetic, rather than a calculated change in scene. It is best, though, in how elegantly it shifts from anxiety to relief. Listening to the first lines, you’d think Hunter had slipped in her pledge toward positive thinking, but when the chorus arrives the music and lyrics align in uplift. It's possible to give the lyrics a darker reading, with the singer confessing a desire to shift positions of advantage ("Time will turn the tide"). But it feels more hopeful than that—an incantation against gloom and a melody you could hold on an indefinite mental loop. —Aaron Leitko

    Lower Dens: "To Die in L.A."

    Titus Andronicus

    “Dimed Out”

    Merge

    84

    If you ask their army of devotees why +@ is their life-changing, vital force, it's because no band gives more of itself. This band does not come equipped with brakes, nor does its leader Patrick Stickles. On a 29-song, double concept album, "Dimed Out" is the loudest advocate for Stickles’ hyper-driven maximalist ambitions, and it manages a trick we usually associate with hip-hop, not indie rock: Coining new slang and using it as a statement of purpose. Yeah, "Dimed Out" probably soundtracked some drinking games this year, but it goes deeper than that: Titus wants to transcend and to take you with them. You can see it in Stickles’ online persona as well, which fosters a cult of personality that can involve starting a one-sided beef with Kendrick Lamar, dominating his own Genius page, and making an overt bid for King of New York. "Dimed Out" overdoes it so you don't confuse it with just punk music. —Ian Cohen

    Titus Andronicus: "Dimed Out"

    Moses Sumney

    “Seeds”

    Terrible

    83

    Moses Sumney is one of seemingly hundreds of artists to benefit from rapid advances in both the quality and availability of live sampling, looping, and layering technologies. But while his embrace of these devices adds a dimension to his music, there's an earthy richness to his performances that suggests he could go on for hours with nothing but a handful of jazz chords on his guitar and his astonishing voice. 

    That voice is a truly beautiful instrument, whether he’s folding it into pillowy, wordless backing harmonies or using his otherworldly falsetto to put an exclamation point on a verse. He sounds not quite like anyone else, his style a big-armed embrace hugging the expressive jazz of Billie Holiday, Thom Yorke at his most atmospheric, or Antony Hegarty at her most reflective. His guitar here is simple, precise and propulsive, humbly underpinning the haunting drama of the full piece of music, where ghostly choirs swoop in and out, and an icy orchestral blast comes out of nowhere at three minutes to turn the whole thing on its head. Sumney is still at the very beginning of his career, but his utterly singular work so far points to great things ahead. —Joe Tangari

    Moses Sumney: "Seeds" (via SoundCloud)

    Chairlift

    “Ch-Ching”

    Columbia

    82

    Inspired by New York City, "Ch-Ching" marvels with its magnitude: from the trunk-rattling bass and whip-crack snares to the pop and hiss beneath the meandering melody. Like the city itself, the song's every square inch belies tiered, towering architecture. While its sonic immediacy and textural diversity make it a stellar pop song, the primary source of "Ch-Ching"’s appeal is that it avoids the expected. Listen to the way Caroline Polachek’s willowy soprano shimmies effortlessly among ghostly whistles and hollow whoops, or how the syncopated brass lends the steeled hip-hop framework a bit of antiquated charm. "Ch-Ching" is like nothing Chairlift have done before, and is one of the more bombastic and brassy pop singles in recent memory. —Zoe Camp

    Chairlift: "Ch-Ching"

    Jenny Hval

    “That Battle Is Over”

    Sacred Bones

    81

    Unsettling in its combination of lyrical bleakness and meditative instrumental beauty, "That Battle Is Over" finds Norwegian experimental artist Jenny Hval capturing 2015’s dystopian global political and cultural climate with terrifying accuracy. Late capitalism has devoured much of our free will, rendering individual boycotts and identification with movements toothless: What, then, is the point of struggle? Over droning organ and rhythmic hand drumming, Hval’s bending and swooping internal monologue, forced outward, wrestles with that question from the position that change is still necessary, even if it seems impossible. What has capitalism done to us? How has it eroded our sense of self? Can we still take care of ourselves and one another in such a world, or are we just going through the motions, despite our best intentions? As we sit perched on the edge of a rotting empire, we find resonance even in knowing others are aching the way that we are. Direct but never didactic, Hval cuts to the marrow. —Jes Skolnik

    Jenny Hval: "That Battle Is Over" (via SoundCloud)

    Dej Loaf

    “Me U & Hennessy” [ft. Lil Wayne]

    Columbia

    80

    Dej Loaf came into the year with the kind of cosigns that dreams are made of: Drake on Instagram, a slew of high-profile "Try Me"remixes, a slot on Erykah Badu’s year-end tour, a feature with Eminem. In 2015, she followed through, putting out her first studio EP #AndSeeThatsTheThing, while touring on Nicki Minaj’s Pinkprint Tour, after getting a shout-out from Nicki herself at the BET Awards.

    By contrast, Lil Wayne was dealing with his Cash Money fallout, the indefinite postponement of Tha Carter V, and a slew of disappointingsoloreleases. Remixing Dej’s "Me U & Hennessy" was one of his more successful musical contributions of the year. His involvement brought wider attention to the slow-burning drunk sex jam that had originally appeared sandwiched in the middle of Dej’s Sell Sole mixtape.

    Yet compared with some of the other sexytime songs Dej put out this year ("Hey There" ft. Future, "My Beyoncé" with Lil Durk, "Shawty" ft. Young Thug), there’s something a little less affectionate and starry-eyed about this one. The song slides and grinds by the flicker of a "couple candles", and there's an immediacy to Dej's lyrics. But there’s also a more tangible distance between the two, at least for Wayne: "Girl you don’t love me, you just love my doggy style," he drawls. "I guess chemistry is true, but I don’t know if it’s the Hennessy or you"—a brief thought he quickly eschews for more threesome- and dick-related pastures. Dej for one, per her characteristic, slightly-detached persona, is happy to keep it about the moment. —Minna Zhou

    Dej Loaf: "Me U & Hennessy" [ft. Lil Wayne]

    YG

    “Twist My Fingaz”

    Def Jam

    79

    In rap’s criminal cosmology, the gangbanger was superseded over a decade ago by the hustler. Gangsta rap’s basic themes of allegiance to an effort far greater than one individual person has been replaced with the coldblooded entrepreneurial mindset of the trap era. Yet over the past couple years, gangsta rap’s been making a stealthy comeback, thanks to efforts by artists as diverse as Freddie Gibbs, Kendrick Lamar, and YG. Following up his DJ Mustard produced debut album, My Krazy Life, the one-off single "Twist My Fingaz" reaches back to the mid-'90s for a nasty, funk-fueled beat, as well as lyrics that pair shots at a new generation of studio gangstas with an exuberant evocation of gang’s favorite nonverbal ways of signalling affiliation. Hearing it’s like living in a world where the G-funk era never ended. —Miles Raymer

    YG: "Twist My Fingaz"

    iLoveMakonnen

    “Whip It (Remix)” [ft. Migos and Rich the Kid]

    self-released

    78

    Like all the best Migos songs, "Whip It" sounds like it is made of pre-chewed gum balls and carcinogens. The beat starts with a dinky piano patch harking back to Master P; it's so dinky that reigning Atlanta Dink-Master Zaytoven might scoff at it. The song is a toy menagerie and iLoveMakonnen is lead toy. He's so sociable he even makes whipping crack sound like a rainy-day project for two ("My friend Makonnen is teaching me how to whip it"). The song is abjectly, joyfully disposable-sounding, but that hook jabs your brain like the upraised staple in the centerfold of a comic book. —Jayson Greene

    iLoveMakonnen: "Whip It (Remix)" [ft. Migos and Rich the Kid] (via SoundCloud)

    Majical Cloudz

    “Downtown”

    Matador

    77

    "Downtown" is, on one level, a song about the good times in a relationship, when things are flush with excitement and discovery and everything seems perfect: "Nothing you say/ Will ever be wrong/ Cause it just feels good being in your arms." But the way Devon Welsh sings the words, and the way Matthew Otto's skeletal instrumentation floats around them like a ghost, makes you think that at least some of it can be placed in the past tense. The line, "There is one thing I’ll do, if it ever goes wrong, I’ll write you into all my songs" may be the one thing that exists in the present. It’s hard to know for sure, but when a love song comes this close to an elegy, it brings to mind fellow melancholic romantics like Morrissey, Robert Smith, "God Damn the Sun" Michael Gira, and Leonard Cohen, which is a good place for Majical Cloudz to be at this point in their career. That it includes some of the best lyrics of the year—"And if suddenly I die/ I hope they will say/ That he was obsessed and it was okay"—shows that Welsh can back up deep sentiments with sharp, smart writing. —Brandon Stosuy

    Majical Cloudz: "Downtown"

    Empress Of

    “Standard”

    Terrible

    76

    It takes an immense talent like Brooklyn transplant Lorely Rodriguez, aka Empress Of, to write and produce a catchy, heartfelt pop song about income inequality without it feeling forced, corny, or patronizing. There’s no poor-them charity or Hallmark Channel pathos in the gut-wrenching chorus to "Standard", from Rodriguez’s stunning debut album. When "survival" means different things to different people across the globe, understanding the material details of others’ lives can be a catalyst for genuine connection. Instead of preaching, Rodriguez’s empathy resonates on a seriously human scale, getting its multilayered pop hooks into our hearts and heads as we nod along. —Jes Skolnik

    Empress Of: "Standard"

    Lana Del Rey

    “High by the Beach”

    Interscope

    75

    In 2015 it became clear that Lana Del Rey's aesthetic wasn't just "a phase," and "High by the Beach" is a song that only she could have sung. For every trite platitude—"lights, camera, acción"—there's an equal and opposite profundity ("You could be a bad motherfucker/ But that don't make you a man"). While "Getting high by the beach" is a vision not totally consistent with the manicured sad-girl aesthetic that has become LDR’s trademark, it's also a vision she executes perfectly—what could've been a painfully-literal complainers' anthem sounds breezy and somehow dignified. It’s moody and literal, sure, but it sounds, for once, like Lana has nothing to prove. —Molly Beauchemin

    Lana Del Rey: "High by the Beach"

    Frank Ocean

    “(At Your Best) You Are Love” (Aaliyah/The Isley Brothers Cover)

    self-released

    74

    In 1976, the Isley Brothers wrote and recorded "At Your Best (You Are Love)" for Harvest for the World, their 14th studio album; by then, the Brothers were a six-piece, ringed with gold medallions and bedecked in full disco-fringe, playing a smoother, slinkier iteration of the galloping rhythm and blues they’d built a career around. Almost two decades later, in 1994, seven years before her death, Aaliyah included a cover of the song on her debut LP, and this year, on what would have been her 36th birthday, Frank Ocean posted a high, spectral version of it—just voice and some wobbly keys—to his personal Tumblr. There might be no greater testament to Ocean’s extraordinary skill as an R&B singer than the way he turns the Isleys’ hokey bromides ("You are a positive, motivating force within my life") into something fully devastating, a lament that also feels healing, generative, kind. In Ocean’s voice, the song becomes about the futility of trying to understand a partner who’s dragging around a past you can’t begin to unpack, much less comprehend: "When you feel what you feel, it's hard for me to understand," he sings, his voice unraveling a little at the edges. "So many things have taken place before this love affair began." Feeling the full weight of history and all the complications it has wrought: There might be no better summation of the last 12 months. —Amanda Petrusich

    Frank Ocean: "(At Your Best) You Are Love"

    Rick Ross

    “Foreclosures”

    Def Jam / Maybach

    73

    Rick Ross’s charade has always hinged on regality over reality, but it’s hard to remain stately in a drought. Last year was tough on MMG, and the cracks in the small empire gaped with the release of two full-length duds from label-boss Rozay himself. On his first lead single of 2015, Ross toned it down for the better. He’s realistic and cautionary about the industry—cutting remarks about malicious publishing deals anchor the first verse—and he’s more endearing for it. A subtle, extended 50 Cent diss hits harder than the corny jabs the two usually exchange; sincerity about Meek Mill is more honorable than bawsy rhetoric. At the bottom of it all, as ever, is money, and "Foreclosures" is Ross’ believable dark side warning. "Learn to walk a tightrope/ Ever seen a rich nigga go broke?" he snarls over a dramatically streamlined J.U.S.T.I.C.E League beat. It’s a delightfully preachy takedown, but before it all starts, Ross admits, "I see it from both sides, I feel a nigga pain." —Jay Balfour

    Rick Ross: "Foreclosures" (via SoundCloud)

    Hudson Mohawke

    “Ryderz”

    Warp

    72

    The rider is a mysterious figure. Bob Dylan sang about two of them approaching in the distance with the howling wind. Jim Morrison saw him as a killer in the night, stalking women and children. D.J. Rogers told us to watch out for the riders, too, and his warning became the core of the biggest, most blown-out track on Hudson Mohawke’s first solo album since he made his name with the TNGHT project. "Ryderz" begins with a mostly untouched minute of Rogers’ original, and it takes a lot of gall to gank a sample that completely. But when the rat-a-tat 808s and neon synthesizers begin to whizz and bang over Rogers’ lyrics, you remember that subtlety has rarely been the point of Mohawke’s most memorable music. It’s not so much a curated Fourth of July fireworks display as it is a match thrown into a car stuffed with Roman candles. The agitation of the sampled vocals is revealed by the colossal drop, which suggests the best way to heed a warning is not with words but with a show of strength. —Jeremy Gordon

    Hudson Mohawke: "Ryderz" (via SoundCloud)

    Father John Misty

    “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment”

    Bella Union / Sub Pop

    71

    Jesus, what an ugly song. The story of a one-night stand in which no one escapes persecution, least of all songwriter/performer/narrator Josh Tillman: He can't get it up and, perhaps more damningly, misidentifies his company's linguistic faux pas as a malapropism. "The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment" surpasses the already high levels of cynicism and bitterness that exist in Tillman's second record as Father John Misty, the excellent I Love You, Honeybear. It's essential that bile at this level of toxicity be delivered via song, because if someone just started talking like this you'd stop them short and advise them to take a round off.

    There's a ton of posing and preening on Honeybear, and even more during Tillman's excellent live show, in which he fully inhabits his arrogant, louche hippie persona. But when I saw him earlier this year, I found myself hoping he wouldn't play "The Night Josh Tillman…"; Tillman summoning the necessary contempt for the performance seemed like it would kill the party dead. (He never played it.) "The Night Josh Tillman…" is fascinating, darkly thrilling, and vicious. It's like a lot of the unattractive things that people do when they're drunk, or high, or lonely, or horny, or some combination. Tillman's retelling walks the same line between dark humor and obscenity. —Andrew Gaerig

    Father John Misty: "The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment"

    DJ Rashad / DJ Spinn

    “Dubby” [ft. Danny Brown]

    Hyperdub

    70

    Don't let Danny Brown's overstated rep as a drug-rap hedonist overshadow his essential musicality—the yelping sing-song variation of his flow may have been initially inspired by Adderall, but his Detroit-raised enthusiasm for a wide scope of electronic music propels the way he goes in. The through-line between Detroit ghettotech and Chicago ghetto house means the already-eclectic Brown knows what to do over peak-level juke beats from the immortal team of DJ Spinn and the late DJ Rashad. "Dubby" nails the sweet spot between relentless percussion and gliding soul-jazz atmosphere, and with all that lineage to ricochet off, Brown's verses feel as much like a merging of formative interests as it does an opportunity to show off. The graceful rampage of his choppy, on-the-kick delivery ("Idon'tknow'aboutwhereyafrom butthisishow my! hood! work!") makes the track's aggressive joy breathe deep. Never mind getting high to it—get high from it. —Nate Patrin

    DJ Rashad/DJ Spinn: "Dubby" [ft. Danny Brown]

    Sufjan Stevens

    “Fourth of July”

    Asthmatic Kitty

    69

    After trying on a variety of different stylistic hats over the past few years—folk troubadour, unwitting historian, electronic dabblist, full-time Christmas caroler—the mercurial Sufjan Stevens got back to his roots with Carrie & Lowell, both literally and figuratively. A meticulous examination of his childhood and the complicated relationship between himself, his stepfather, and late mother, the album delivers the kind of emotional wallop that made his early records such commanding listens. It offers the kind of lyrical directness and emotional candor that, from a lesser artist, could be treacly and precious. In Sufjan’s hands, however, the songs soar, offering a reverie bordering—as so much of his best work does—on the religious.

    "Fourth of July" is the album’s emotional centerpiece, a rumination on his mother’s death that doesn’t flinch when broaching mortality—both hers and ours. "It was night when you died, my firefly," he sings. "What could I have said to raise you from the dead?/ Oh, could I be the sky on the Fourth of July?" The song itself is a kind of hushed explosion—at once a dialogue between Sufjan and his mother ("Shall we look at the moon, my little loon/ Why do you cry?" she asks him) and bittersweet examination of how we choose to face our ends. It’s hard to imagine too many artists capable of selling the line "We’re all gonna die" and wringing out so many layers of meaning. As the line is repeated—surrounded by hushed piano and a choir of backup voices—it becomes less a nihilist warning or an admission of defeat. It’s a reminder to live, to embrace, to remember, to sing. —T. Cole Rachel

    Sufjan Stevens: "Fourth of July"

    Björk

    “Lionsong”

    One Little Indian

    68

    A nine-song play-by-play of the demise of her relationship with artist Matthew Barney, Vulnicura was one of 2015’s most emotionally rending releases—densely layered, meticulously produced, and as creatively ambitious as anything Björk has ever done (which is no small statement). "Lionsong" is not necessarily the most devastating track on the album, but it’s arguably the best. The song documents a painful limbo—the claustrophobia of being held hostage by someone else’s emotions. "Maybe he will come out of this loving me/ Maybe he won't," she sings, as a cauldron of strings, electronic blips, and her own soaring, multi-tracked voice surges around her. The song is less of a plea for love as it is a request for respect. "I demand clarity," she sings, before admitting, "Somehow I'm not too bothered/ I'd just like to know." Like the rest of Vulnicura, the song seems to exist in a realm beyond intimacy—the sound of an artist at her most stunningly vulnerable. By so fearlessly and meticulously cataloguing her own emotional anguish, Björk manages a rare trick. She explores one of the most primal and well trod of all human narratives—heartbreak, the collapse of family—and still ends up sounding strangely like the future. —T. Cole Rachel

    Björk: "Lionsong"

    Rae Sremmurd

    “This Could Be Us”

    EarDrummers / Interscope

    67

    "This Could Be Us" is the most irresistible track on Rae Sremmurd's relentlessly catchy debut album SremmLife. It's the record's ebullient light amid forceful club-ready bangers. While the Sremm brothers spend much of the album doubling up on the success of 2014 hits "No Flex Zone" and "No Type" with songs filled with heavy bass, scattered synth, and loudly chanted hooks, "This Could Be Us" finds younger brother Swae Lee free to sing his heart out. His high-pitched vocals are endearingly sweet, especially when combined with a consistent "Chopsticks"-like piano melody and innocent one-liners like, "I ball like Tracy McGrady." Further, Rae Sremmurd take an otherwise ironic meme in #ThisCouldBeUsButYouPlayin—useful for scoffing at potential paramours’ lack of interest—and use it with complete sincerity to plea for a second chance at love. Such wide-eyed innocence and giddiness give the track a palpable joy. On tracks like this, Rae Sremmurd successfully turn hip-hop into pop. "This Could Be Us" is what happens when they focus hard on just the latter part of the equation. —Matthew Strauss

    Rae Sremmurd: "This Could Be Us"

    Jazmine Sullivan

    “Dumb” [ft. Meek Mill]

    RCA

    66

    R&B’s tradition of tell-off records runs deep. When the genre was last in the spotlight, in the late '90s, we saw some classics of the form, including Destiny’s Child's "Bills Bills Bills" and Blu Cantrell’s "Hit ’Em Up Style (Oops!)". But those looking for a more contemporary example of the staple should start with the track that kicked off Jazmine Sullivan’s album Reality Show.

    Sullivan had grown disenchanted with the music industry after slugging it out in the trenches since signing to Jive Records at 15. In 2011, she announced that she would be retiring. "Dumb" was a ferocious annunciation of her return to music, its drumline rhythms and foreboding Greek chorus supporting her fierce declaration of superiority over the song’s subject, a man foolish enough to cheat. Sullivan has said that the song wasn’t based on anything that had happened to her, but that she wanted to be sure to do "a woman’s anthem" for her first song back. It’s a fitting sentiment for an era where the voices of black women are finding new arenas in which they can be heard, dismissing any and all of those who would deny them that space. —Jonah Bromwich

    Jazmine Sullivan: "Dumb" [ft. Meek Mill]

    Deerhunter

    “Living My Life”

    4AD

    65

    "Live in the now!" Garth so famously beseeched Wayne. That’s much easier said than done, particularly from the dark side of 30. Deerhunter attempt to make this bitterest of pills easier to swallow with maximum yacht pop creaminess on "Living My Life", a languid grudge match between pure mindfulness and past and future ghosts. If "will you tell me how to conquer all this fear?" is a riddle Bradford Cox poses to himself, "living my life" is the mantra-like answer he incessantly chants in reply. Couched in a gauzy, anesthetized splash of guitars and electronics, this dilemma achieves the sort of wary, anthemic grandeur we demand of our high-grade rock'n'roll: a sad song that feels happy, or at the very least capably anesthetizing. Yet no matter how many times any of us listen to "Living My Life" on repeat, a moment will arrive where headphones or earbuds must be cast aside to confront the very frightening, very tense world beyond ourselves, with all its attendant fear and loathing. —Raymond Cummings

    Deerhunter: "Living My Life"

    Chance the Rapper

    “Angels” [ft. Saba]

    self-released

    64

    On "Angels"—the rumored first single from Chance the Rapper’s next mixtape—which debuted on "Colbert", Chance addresses the flimsy narrative that he’s the conscious pop star ego to Chief Keef’s guttural id head-on, confidently telling the world, "Oooh, I might share my next one with Keef/ Got the industry in disbelief/ They be asking for beef." Take these lyrics to heart: Kill the drill vs. conscious mentality you have about Chicago’s rap scene.

    Norwegian producer Lido (Halsey, Banks) channels a sunny day driving down Lake Shore Drive with equal parts gospel harmony and kettledrum, while Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment provide a big, cushioned horn section. Not just a feel-good throwaway in a year that needed some sunshine, "Angels" also served as a commendable guerilla radio promotion by a local act that barely saw love on the air. The play worked, by the way. You can hear Saba’s flawless "City so great/ I feel like Alexand'" hook during morning and afternoon rush now. (It’s important to call this out as a lot of local acts don’t get that shine. If you regularly listen to Chicago radio, you’d think Drake was the one born in Chatham, not Chance.)

    Be it overhyped controversy over Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq or underhyped controversy over various cover-ups in local government, in 2015 we needed a megaphone reminding the world that these statistics you see on the news are still humans, that good people still live out south in Chicago and that it’s still juking out here. Lucky for us, "Angels" had our back. —Ernest Wilkins

    Chance the Rapper: "Angels" [ft. Saba]

    Chromatics

    “Shadow”

    Italians Do It Better / Adult Swim

    63

    After years of searching, Johnny Jewel and his nightbreed cohort have perfected the afterlife love ballad, which means they’ve perfected the Chromatics song. "Shadow", a post-disco "Teen Angel", slipped out this year while we waited for Jewel to finish tinkering with the perpetually imminent Dear Tommy. We’re still waiting, but judging by this necromantic teen dream, like M83 minus the bombast, it will be worth it. With an immaculately moonlit minimal house setting and a radiant hook worthy of peak Cure, "Shadow" is so subtle it blurs out into timeless myth—or maybe it is just a breakup. But the forensic evidence is there. A gleaming knife of guitar is swaddled in black-velvet ambiance like a hidden murder weapon. A couple is driving at night, trying to escape a dead-end town. "We’re watching all the streetlights fade," Ruth Radelet sighs in a silvered voice the size of a drive-in screen, "and now you’re just a stranger’s dream." Think about that—streetlights might recede as you drive away, or just wink out, but why would they "fade"? The verb seems to fatally ricochet back onto the speaker, who must be turning into a ghost to see things that way. Likewise, the amorphous music lingers at a threshold. Precisely where does that haunting stepwise arpeggio, twisting our couple so inexorably toward their fates, overtake that knocking drum, like footsteps approaching down a hallway? Where do the cold vapors trailing from the vocals stop and the warm ones curling off the guitar begin? What’s at the distant end of this purgatorial tunnel of reverb? "For the last time," Radelet sings eight times, as if she knows but isn’t saying. —Brian Howe

    Chromatics: "Shadow" (via SoundCloud)

    Blood Orange

    “Sandra's Smile”

    Domino

    62

    "Sandra's Smile" isn't a protest song as much as a platform for Dev Hynes to grapple with the kaleidoscope of emotions he experienced as a result of the death of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who was arrested for a minor traffic violation in July only to be found dead in her Waller County jail cell three days later. A haunting, shimmering slice of R&B with a beat that eerily recalls a beating heart, the track captures a remarkable range of emotions in just over three minutes: exhaustion, confusion, anger, deep-rooted fear, all buoyed by a hopefulness that cannot be extinguished. "Sandra's Smile" refuses to admit defeat, forcing us to confront an ugly—and for too many, literally deadly—reality head on without sanitizing its message so that it goes down easier. —Renato Pagnani

    Blood Orange: "Sandra's Smile"

    G.L.O.S.S.

    “G.L.O.S.S. (We're From the Future)”

    self-released

    61

    "Singing in G.L.O.S.S. is kind of like getting to be a superhero," Sadie Switchblade told Bitch earlier this year. "Like weaponizing a lifetime of anguish and alienation." On their demo tape, the Olympia hardcore band burn the no-future scripture of punk history to the ground. Its opening track is pure insurrectionism—Sadie delivers a monologue for her fellow transwomen with a thrilling rage ("we’re fucking future girls, living outside society’s shit!"), before blasting off into a 90-second blur of furious noise. And she makes the group’s total irreverence unmistakably clear: "The straight boy canon is a royal bore," she shouts, emptying her lungs with soul-cleansing gale-force. It’s a tough-as-hell mission statement from the most necessary hardcore band of 2015. —Jenn Pelly

    G.L.O.S.S.: "G.L.O.S.S. (We're From the Future)" (Buy on Bandcamp)

    Neon Indian

    “Annie”

    Transgressive / Mom & Pop

    60

    Alan Palomo, one of the earliest and strongest voices of chillwave, released two Day-Glo bright albums before vanishing from sight for four long years. In the meantime, his peers moved on to fuzz-rock (Toro y Moi), garage rock (Ariel Pink), and screwed-down strangeness (James Ferraro). When Neon Indian broke his sabbatical this summer with "Annie", he doubled down on his '80s obsession. But instead of returning to chillwave’s vision of warped VHS tapes and MTV memories, now Palomo immersed himself in the decade’s songcraft, from its biggest freaks (Prince) to its one-hit blips (Matthew Wilder). "Annie" is the best Balearic song of the year, the sort of silken, breezy, featherweight faux-reggae, faux-tropical pop synthesis that acts like Scritti Politti and Duran Duran confected for play on la isla bonita. It sounds sterling in the present even as it inhabits a bygone time where there were such things as "answering machines." —Andy Beta

    Neon Indian: "Annie"

    Janelle Monáe / Wondaland Records

    “Hell You Talmbout”

    Wondaland Arts Society

    59

    The Electric Lady bonus cut "Hell You Talmbout" was already eye-opening in its original form, evoking claustrophobia in a wide-open space as its street-crime snapshots intruded on lives spent trying to be lived. But after the events of the past couple of years, Monáe tore every allusive word out of the original and brought her crew in to replace them with a cry of rage and a seemingly endless roll call. The names in themselves speak volumes: there are the familiar ones that brought the Black Lives Matter movement into the fore (Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown), the ones less instantly recognizable but no less demanding of justice (Tommy Yancy, Jerame Reid, Philip White), and the ones who evoke not-so-distant memories of cases that turned a national spotlight on trigger-happy police (Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell). As a musical performance it all cuts to the essence, riding off rolling-thunder drumline momentum and a church mourner's chorus, a marcher's anthem that keeps its structure simple and strong enough to carry the burden of all those names. It's what happens when the demands for recognition that "I Am—Somebody" are ignored by the people with your life in their hands, beats for the streets when the streets are taken over by the people. —Nate Patrin

    Janelle Monáe and Wondaland Records: "Hell You Talmbout" (via SoundCloud)

    Nicolas Jaar

    “Fight (Nymphs IV)”

    R&S

    58

    Nicolas Jaar leaked music slowly this year. Outside of his unofficial Soviet movie OST Pomegranates, his only 2015 releases came in the form of Nymphs, a series of three new singles released periodically from summer through fall. Capping off the chain is the standalone "Fight", an eight-and-a-half minute exercise in snaking beatwork and destabilized melody. Jaar slices up his voice and tosses the resulting syllables into the fray, grinding his upper register in the nervous machinery. The track doesn’t follow lyrics so much as it lets phrases glance off its central apparatus like pixels of light off a disco ball. "So don’t you fight," Jaar insists at the dissolving finish. "Fight" takes an explicit look at the workings of the human body, how they connect and disconnect from the sounds they process. Jaar finds sympathy with the body’s quieter experiences, the ticks and hums that move in the background of our inner lives, and Nymphs as a sequence not only echoes those movements but extrapolates on them. Here’s a producer who’s always been as interested in the murk beneath the surface of his work as the surface itself; on "Fight", he finds plenty of glitter in both. —Sasha Geffen

    Nicolas Jaar: "Fight (Nymphs IV)"

    Destroyer

    “Dream Lover”

    Dead Oceans / Merge

    57

    "Dream Lover"’s unruly saxophones squeal a filthy poem of irresponsible adventure and unlikely romance. It sounds exhausted, and liable to collapse—as if Dan Bejar were acquiescing to just one last romp before seriousness sets in. "I think I used to be more fun," he admits. As much as the 43-year-old Canadian tries to act the Scrooge of indie rock, even he can't completely negate the joy in his own music. It was recorded with the studio doors flung wide, horns squalling at full blast, and made it onto Poison Season in spite of the inherent pop DNA that Bejar found so aberrant. —Laura Snapes

    Destroyer: "Dream Lover" (via SoundCloud)

    Earl Sweatshirt

    “Grief”

    Columbia / Tan Cressida

    56

    Earl Sweatshirt is good at writing about anxiety, and writing about anxiety is difficult. Perhaps the only thing more difficult than writing about anxiety is writing about good writing about anxiety. And when you live with anxiety you tend to cherish the rare art that manages to hit such a high level of simplicity as to relieve it. So why shake that all up and start over again by trying to break down "Grief" for you? Wouldn't retracing his "I just want my time and my mind intact" a few dozen times consecutively in a Jack Torrance style do more justice to this work than any amount of half-baked word goop about how well Earl distills the boom bap nihilism of Mobb Deep into Tumblr generation numbness or whatever? I mean let's be real—you are not going to read anything as beautiful, calming, or complete as even the shallowest bar on this song anywhere on the Internet today or tomorrow or next year. So go outside and like shit already. Earl did that so we don't have to go through that. —Andrew Nosnitsky

    Earl Sweatshirt: "Grief"

    Nao

    “Inhale Exhale”

    Little Tokyo

    55

    With "Inhale Exhale", London upstart Nao—Caracal scene-stealer, ex-Jarvis Cocker backup singer, and possibly-maybe foil for international man of mystery Jai Paul and his brother A.K.—offers up a smash-that-wasn’t, a rippling bundle of nerves in the guise of a brilliantly ambiguous pop song. Through a stream of scattered imagery—rivers, oceans, churches in the wild—"Inhale" finds Nao cataloging her demons over what sounds like a spaceship gaining sentience; "it’s me," she insists a little past the halfway mark, "it’s not you," marking what may be the first time in history that particular kiss-off is delivered in earnest. The tightrope-walking "Inhale" inhabits that all-too-familiar space between composure and abandon, when you and your cool are separated by a single breath. —Paul Thompson

    Nao: "Inhale Exhale" (via SoundCloud)

    Jeremih

    “Oui”

    Def Jam

    54

    "Oui" is easily the least debauched song on Jeremih’s shamelessly pleasure-seeking third LP Late Nights, and it’s all the better for it. Taking a page from The-Dream’s catalog of similarly lovelorn R&B stunners, "Oui" is like a shot of warm sunlight in Late Nights’ nocturnal glow, a heart-in-your-throat, no-frills love song that breaks devotion down to its simplest terms ("There’s no oui without you and I"). That clever sweetness paid off in a big way, making for an instantly likable comeback single. Jeremih saves his best trick for last, when the beat falls away on the bridge to make room for a vocal riff on Shai’s 1992 hit "If I Ever Fall in Love". With "Oui", Jeremih made it stunningly clear—there’s no other R&B lothario we’d rather spend time with. —Eric Torres

    Jeremih: "Oui"

    ANOHNI

    “4 Degrees”

    Secretly Canadian

    53

    The discussion around climate change is among the grand farces of our age, pitting the endless labor of scientists and activists against a general state of political inaction and conciliatory half-measures from powerful nations. "4 Degrees", the first song released from ANOHNI’s upcoming HOPELESSNESS, for which the singer formerly known as Antony collaborated with producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, cuts to the quick of the issue with a disturbing ferocity. An apocalyptic vision of extinction, it equates a central shrug of indifference ("It’s only 4 degrees") with purposeful, systematic violence, turning it into a death wish for all life on Earth. Curling out of a steadily intensifying boil of drums and orchestration, ANOHNI’s distinctive vibrato becomes a violent oscillation, the voice of an avenging angel bent on punishing the innocent. A catalog of dying animals calls to mind an anti-Noah’s Ark narrative, the enlightened human willing each one in turn to its death.

    Even more powerfully, the song coincides with ANOHNI’s own decision to leave the name Antony behind and release music under the name she uses personally. How much courage and how much anger does it take to make such a brutal statement alongside your own professional reinvention? J. Ralph, the composer who worked with ANOHNI for the music in the documentary Racing Extinction, recently commented on the idea of mass extinctions whittling the world’s sounds down to a single voice. "4 Degrees" is the prelude to that moment, a savage stirring of frustration and catharsis run through with bitterness. —Abigail Garnett

    ANOHNI: "4 Degrees"

    FKA twigs

    “in time”

    Young Turks

    52

    Few modern artists communicate longing as well as FKA twigs does, and on "in time", she nestles snugly into the idea of a future that may never come. Over pinched but percolating synths, she pines for the familiarity she and her lover knew before they slowly became estranged. She illustrates this disconnect in the little asides: "In time, your hands on my body will resonate through me/ Like they did before." It's a half-hearted attempt to convince herself things will get better or that they even can. "in time" is one of the most sumptuous moments on the singer-producer's EP, M3LL155X, a stunning audiovisual experience that encapsulates her strengths as an artists and auteur. twigs and co-producer Tic crank out a production that clicks and bumps in bursts, creating the little pockets though which her muted voice breathes. "in time" is the centerpiece that anchors the project, rounding out her previously shapeless and wispy soundscapes into something more solid and whole. —Sheldon Pearce

    FKA twigs: "in time"

    David Bowie

    “Blackstar”

    Columbia

    51

    As a boy, David Robert Jones loved a book called Starman Jones by science fiction icon Robert Heinlein. It helped spark Jones’ fascination with space, one that’s sustained him throughout the decades, long after he changed his named to David Bowie and launched his career in earnest with 1969’s "Space Oddity". Bowie’s latest single, "Blackstar", is both an extension of that fascination and a reinvention of it. Unlike the relatively restrained astral voyages of "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" and "Dancing Out in Space" from his last album, 2013’s The Next Day, "Blackstar" is one of Bowie’s cyclical retreats from rock convention; its 10-minute sprawl is fractured, episodic, and experimental, with a chant of Gregorian proportions bleeding into movements of jazzy syncopation, atmospheric pop, and breathtaking orchestral ecstasy.

    The overall impression is one of cosmic awe—a filmic immersion in Bowie’s science-fictional universe that doesn’t even need the song’s astounding video to vividly evoke. Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti has admitted that Blackstar, the upcoming album due January 8, was influenced by Kendrick Lamar, and that’s evident in the single’s fluid lushness and elastic dimensionality. Still, there are plenty of clues in "Blackstar" that Bowie still genuflects before Scott Walker, from the art-rock gauntness to the cryptic mystique of his refrain, "I’m a blackstar". Bowie’s timbre is haunting and stentorian, and that enormity is driven home by the scope of his vision: Steeped in pomp, space, and myth, "Blackstar" not only rekindles his conceptual fire, it reestablishes his nomadic orbit around science fiction. —Jason Heller

    David Bowie: "Blackstar"

    Kurt Vile

    “Pretty Pimpin”

    Matador

    50

    Kurt Vile is the pied piper of easy vibes and carefree contentment. His voice is a graceful, assured mumble, and his songs take their time to make their points, suggesting that the singer rushes to do little but relax. Sometimes, though, even bros get the blues. During "Pretty Pimpin", the anthem of and thesis for the anxiety-tinged b’lieve i’m goin’ down…, Vile awakes to a state of "Once in a Lifetime" confusion. He’s caught off guard by the face staring back from the mirror and the circumstances that brought him to this moment, as he brushes his teeth and considers (at least briefly) combing his cascade of curls back, like an adult working a normal 9-to-5. "Who’s that stupid clown blocking the bathroom sink?" he quips. Even though slightly out of his mind, Vile sidesteps his worries long enough for a sly smile, realizing that, in spite of onset of middle-aged responsibility, the man in the mirror remains "pretty pimpin." —Grayson Haver Currin

    Kurt Vile: "Pretty Pimpin"

    Beach House

    “Sparks”

    Bella Union / Mistletone / Sub Pop

    49

    Dissonance and distortion have never played a big role in Beach House's music. For all their pervasive melancholy, they tend to keep their harmonies consonant and their signal clean. But both qualities creep into "Sparks", a song whose very name implies friction. The gleaming guitar lead is caked in fuzz, the looped vocal that runs beneath is encrusted with static. But it's the organs that really buzz, throwing off harmonics like a sharpening wheel tosses tiny points of light, in a steady cycle of tension and release, tension and release. It's not all so rough—Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally singing in unison is as smooth as the onset of night, and the whole song radiates a hush reminiscent of Yo La Tengo's nocturnal And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. The lyrics suggest a hazy vision of homecoming and all the bittersweet emotions that come with it. "And then it's dark again/ Just like a spark," they sing, in a twist that is subtle but significant: treating sparks not as a symbol of light, but its opposite. Everything fades to black eventually, just some things quicker than others. —Philip Sherburne

    Beach House: "Sparks"

    Kelela

    “Rewind”

    Warp / Cherry Coffee

    48

    Where 2013’s Cut 4 Me showed off Kelela’s dexterity with languorous, metallic club music and R&B, on "Rewind" she increased the pace to a well-suited sprint. A standout from this fall’s Hallucinogen EP, "Rewind" uses heavy, So So Def-nodding bass and lazy keys to speak to that singular, spark of a moment when you connect with another person, drawing on "the narcotic that is loving someone," as she explained. "It makes you feel drained, it’s in your body and it affects you so completely." It’s fitting, then, that "Rewind" is so utterly catchy, with a spacious, lean bounce to it that lends itself exceptionally well to dance (see: the runway models who memorably broke out into elaborate choreography during the song at an Opening Ceremony fashion show this fall). The song’s ecstatic pulse and Kelela’s airy, polished vocals are enough to make you as lightheaded and in love as the song’s dizzying subject. —Eric Torres

    Kelela : "Rewind" (via SoundCloud)

    Dr. Dre

    “Genocide” [ft. Kendrick Lamar, Marsha Ambrosius, and Candice Pillay]

    Aftermath / Interscope

    47

    Dem Jointz get the production credit for "Genocide", but it's tough to listen without hearing Dr. Dre's fingerprints on the brash, frequency-hogging mix. Blame it (or celebrate it) for chasing older ears, this brittleness demands attention from the motorcycle-revving opening seconds. While Dre brags about loading up Pro Tools over a loping groove, the song opens up like a trap door beneath the listeners' feet. Candice Pillay's patois leads into Floetry's Marsha Ambrosius, singing a hook that would have fit a No Limit CD two decades earlier. Neo soul and gangster rap, past and present, murder and mass killings, a tree and its forest: "Genocide" suggests a multitude of perspectives vying for dominance, and an uncertain verdict. The album's heart pumps with the charged energy of a younger artist throughout—weariness seems anathema to Dr. Dre. Yet Compton was a definitive product of 2015, its age showing in the colliding visions of its collaborators, with only Dre's unifying sensibility holding everything together. His weather-damaged vocals color the record with the desperation of a race against time. Yet despite some fraying around the edges, he remains bellicose and confrontational. His chest-beating verse clears the way for Kendrick Lamar, who leads the song to its darkened exit: "Fuck your hope." —David Drake

    Dr. Dre: "Genocide" [ft. Kendrick Lamar, Marsha Ambrosius, and Candice Pillay]

    Oneohtrix Point Never

    “Sticky Drama”

    Warp

    46

    For his latest album as Oneohtrix Point Never, Daniel Lopatin has created a rich (if opaque) narrative about an adolescent alien, a narrative buttressed by digital ephemera outside the album proper. The fake Twitter accounts and rabbit-hole websites that sit outside Garden of Delete’s running time provide an interesting way to ponder the record’s engagement with juvenile dolor, but none of that would have mattered if the music didn’t also communicate Lopatin's themes. Referencing nu-metal riffs, black-metal blast beats, and dance music hooks, "Sticky Drama" isn’t just the album’s most immediately arresting cut. It’s also the album’s best advertisement for Lopatin's kitschy evocation of teenage sadness. It helps, too, that the song’s lyrics are rendered fully unintelligible by Lopatin’s filters. Just as with opera, sometimes you don’t need to follow every word, precisely. The range of instrumental color tells you what the singer is feeling—and what the composer thinks about the character’s psychology. —Seth Colter Walls

    Oneohtrix Point Never: "Sticky Drama"

    Joanna Newsom

    “Leaving the City”

    Drag City

    45

    During her five years away, Joanna Newsom tied the knot and became a film star; given her knack for turning personal conflicts into wild musical imbroglios, this album could’ve gone anywhere. Divers’ first single, the poetic nonfiction piece "Sapokonikan", was reliably ambitious. Drawing parallels between historical, romantic, and cultural forms of erasure, it felt closer in spirit to a Harper’s pitch than any familiar folk idiom. Followup "Leaving the City", however, suggested she’d been wrestling with the same shit as many of the rest of us. A reflection on urban aspiration vs. rural modesty, it takes a macabre trip through gold fields where "the light will seep and the scythe will reap" towards a remarkable chorus. As a cacophony builds, internal rhymes fidget anxiously down its meter. From the soul-searching emerges a catch-22, that the price we pay for slowing time is an intimate awareness of its passage. —Jazz Monroe

    Joanna Newsom: "Leaving the City"

    Courtney Barnett

    “Pedestrian at Best”

    Mom & Pop / Marathon Artists

    44

    This is peak Courtney Barnett: "I think you’re a joke," she incants, kicking out the final couplet of her most genius chorus, "But I don’t find you very FUU-uuu-UUU-uuu-UUU-uuu-UUU-uuu-NNY!" Barnett hollers that word for five full seconds—a drawl that’s so monotone and unhinged it’s like she’s finding some power inside her that she never knew was there. It sounds like the kind of confident psychic joyride that introverts typically only have in their own heads, but Barnett projects it to the heavens in one long taunting exhalation—a shy girl’s dream.

    It’s a testament to Barnett’s considerable talent that the most epic song on her debut LP is also the most fun. The subterranean blues of "Pedestrian at Best" are spit too fast for anything like Dylanesque cue cards, but you try and catch them all: "The rats are back inside my head/ What would Freud have said?" Barnett speak-sings, and while she sets her stakes high, she is not self-serious, as her conclusion attests: "I’m a fake! I’m a phoney! I’m awake! I’m alone! I’m homely! I’m a Scorpio!" If you’re a quiet person with an overactive mind, prone to self-deprecation, you’ll feel seen in Barnett’s music, but "Pedestrian at Best" does one better. It offers an invitation to shout it back, to laugh, and maybe, for a second, to even feel cool. —Jenn Pelly

    Courtney Barnett: "Pedestrian at Best"

    Rich Homie Quan

    “Flex”

    Think It's a Game / EMPIRE

    43

    On his breakout single "Type of Way", Rich Homie Quan couldn’t suppress the tinge of guilt he felt about his own success. He could sense the jealousy that his car, his watch, and his general good fortune stirred in others, and judging by his remorseful croon it genuinely pained him. Two years later he's over all that. On "Flex (Ohh Ohh Ohh)" he flashes not one luxury watch but six of them, relishes his penthouse view, and broadcasts his latest windfall to the world ($100,000 for just two days work, on top of that cold $2 mil he made off a mixtape). If those figures make anybody else in the room feel some type of way, so be it. Over a springy, Mustard-on-Prozac beat from Nitti Beatz and DJ Spinz, Quan hopscotched through the most jovial rap single of the year, and his cheer was infectious. And that’s to say nothing of the video, which spawned one of the year’s most memorable dances, a flamboyant victory strut as slap happy as the song itself. —Evan Rytlewski

    Rich Homie Quan: "Flex"

    Future

    “I Serve the Base”

    Epic / Free Bandz

    42

    If we’re ranking Future personas (and we always should be), the shit-talking "I do these drugs, they don’t do me" Straight Outta Zone 6 Future should garner as much hoopla as "bummed out with love while floating in a sea of codeine" Future. While the latter brings us some downright scary moments, the former often gives us better music. Take "I Serve the Base", a damn near perfect song. As the unofficial intro to DS2, Future uses a beat from Metro Boomin that sounds like Atlanta-by-way-of-Spacely Sprockets to get everyone on the same page, letting you know things are better on his end since the Ciara breakup and subsequent Beast Mode/Monster/56 Nights three-play. "They tryna take the soul out me/ They tryna take my confidence and they know I'm cocky/ Fuck another interview, I'm done with it/ ...A nigga was depressed/ Now my mind back healthy" and that it’s back to business as usual. —Ernest Wilkins

    Future: "I Serve the Base"

    Sleater-Kinney

    “A New Wave”

    Sub Pop

    41

    In 2000, Sleater-Kinney ended their riot-grrrl fatigue anthem "#1 Must Have" with a powerful reminder: "Culture is what we make it, now is the time to invent it." Fifteen years later and they’re still looking to invent a new kind of culture, except this time the prospect is more hopeful, re-energized on their song "A New Wave" as a call to action. "No outline will ever hold us," Carrie Brownstein sings in between playing masterful, howling electric guitar solos. "It’s not a new wave, it’s just you and me." This is a rousing song about breaking through the confines of ceilings and ill-fitting labels, the means of destruction being the realization that there’s much more to being than boxes, bodies, or waves. "I am raw material, make me plastic make me fuel," Brownstein sings, every word in strong enunciation. Vague regarding its targets, "A New Wave" emerges as a universal song for anyone who wants to exist without outlines, to get to a basic foundation where to measure power is to measure love. —Hazel Cills

    Sleater-Kinney: "A New Wave"

    Kanye West

    “All Day” [ft. Allan Kingdom, Theophilus London, and Paul McCartney]

    Def Jam

    40

    There was much talk in the year following Yeezus, as Kanye West campaigned (and succeeded) to needle his way into the mercurial fashion world, of the Chicago hip-hop polymath having lost touch with the pulse of black America in his quest for personal recognition. In his proper return to rapping this year, after the campfire singalongs "Only One" and "FourFiveSeconds", West made damn sure to snap back hard, reading the riot act to detractors high and low with his most statistically profane performance to date. "All Day" is unadulterated swag rap of the grittiest variety, and you can feel in it the percolating frustration of the post-millennial black creative to leverage community cred against success in society proper. It sucks that hip-hop is a world where our freest thinkers have to continuously cycle back and flash their bonafides, but as a poignant reminder that Kanye West is indisputably black and unapologetically Chicago, "All Day" stings. —Craig Jenkins

    Kanye West: "All Day" [ft. Allan Kingdom, Theophilus London, and Paul McCartney]

    Grimes

    “Kill V. Maim”

    4AD

    39

    "Kill V. Maim" is Art Angels’ most bracing action scene—and, as ever, Claire Boucher plays all the roles. In a sole pre-chorus, over stadium-crushing beats, you can hear a whole lineage of pop defiance: Grimes morphs from a metallic growl à la Onobox to a sly Barbie-via-Nicki hair-flip to a deranged cheerleader taunt (with the particular ear-piercing squeal of Brittany from "Daria"). At least conceptually, her pivoting vocal escapades recall Kathleen Hanna in Bikini Kill—how Hanna contorted her voice to show that identities are performed (indeed, Art Angels feels like the album that Hanna’s l'écriture féminine Julie Ruin character dreamed of). No one can sing the words "Italiana mobster looking so precious" with quite the naturalistic ease of Grimes; still, "I’m only a man, and I do what I can" might be her most subversive and quotable couplet ever. "Kill V. Maim" is Grimes as pure iconoclast. No one else in pop—mainstream, avant-garde, or otherwise—could do this, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone would even try.

    Boucher says "Kill V. Maim"—with its storyline of an unstoppable villain on her worst behavior—was "written from the perspective of Al Pacino in The Godfather Pt. 2, except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space." It’s some kind of a miracle that you could start there and end up with an interstellar banger like this. Even among Art Angels’ raw balladeering and its throat-scraping screams of Pharmakon-calibre, "Kill V. Maim" emerges as the record’s daring peak. It’s a hype song for all the kids who almost got beat-up at Homecoming—the sound of a secret pep-rally for the freaks. —Jenn Pelly

    Grimes: "Kill V. Maim"

    Jack Ü

    “Where Are Ü Now” [ft. Justin Bieber]

    Mad Decent / OWSLA

    38

    In the past, a honey-voiced kid like Justin Bieber would have ruled the Rat Pack, a bad boy belting out unbeatable pablum. Now he’s a weirdo too, at least thanks to Skrillex and Diplo (recording here as Jack Ü). On "Where Are Ü Now" he sings like an angel with a voice made of pure sunlight, and then Diplex just kinda screw around with him on their computer, transforming him into the year’s catchiest dolphin for the hook, rewinding him, and all sorts of other kooky shit. Great songs are often made of either beauty or madness, and often we settle for neither. "Where Are Ü Now" is both, pushing music forward while keeping it on the straight and narrow with his exceptional skills. —Matthew Schnipper

    Jack Ü: "Where Are Ü Now" [ft. Justin Bieber] (via SoundCloud)

    Janet Jackson

    “No Sleeep”

    BMG / Rhythm Nation

    37

    Even if she hadn’t re-emerged with her first studio album in seven years, Janet Jackson was already embodied in R&B’s 2015 landscape—the sound of her work with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis was everywhere. Janet’s defiant spirit echoed in the likes of alt-R&B stars like FKA twigs and Kelela, her coos in more mainstream singers like Tinashe and Jhené Aiko, and in Carly Rae Jepsen’s recent work with another Jam-Lewis acolyte, Dev Hynes. Even the men amalgamating pop, R&B and rock—Miguel, Jason Derulo, and the Weeknd—worshiped at her altar.

    When Jackson returned with "No Sleeep" she embraced her status as elder stateswoman. Rather than bend to the current trends of uptown funk and electronic hybrids (ground she’s already trod in her formidable catalog), she returned with an air of assurance, never needing to rise above the purr of pillow talk to set the mood. Working with Jam & Lewis to conjure this quiet storm, Janet also documented the wee hours of the night. She sings of a time that’s around "half past five," but here it’s a time where touch and feel is the realest of sensations. —Andy Beta

    Janet Jackson: "No Sleeep" (via SoundCloud)

    Jamie xx

    “Loud Places” [ft. Romy]

    Young Turks

    36

    It’s hard to find much to complain about in the dazzling slow-motion rave of Jamie xx’s In Colour, especially when it comes to what is possibly the album’s most euphoric highlight, "Loud Places". But still, many crowed about how the track, featuring vocals from his xx bandmate Romy Madley-Croft, not only works better as an xx song proper, but is the best xx song released since the trio’s self-titled debut in 2009. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of "Loud Places", which doesn’t really belong to any one person or group, Jamie included. Instead, it’s a love letter to both the records that shaped him (it’s built on a generous sample of Idris Muhammad’s joyous 1977 dance-funk track "Could Heaven Ever Be Like This") and the people who helped him reach such lofty heights. "Didn’t I take you to higher places you can’t reach without me?" Croft sings just before the swelling nu-gospel hook kicks in. The answer is a grateful, emphatic yes. —Zach Kelly

    Jamie xx: "Loud Places" [ft. Romy]

    Drake

    “Energy”

    Cash Money

    35

    Built primarily with trap snares over a four-note piano line, "Energy" is largely without flourish. It also finds Drake at his most dismissive. He's got countless responsibilities and daily frustrations, so instead of fighting back against everyone "trying to drain [him] of [his] energy," he just brushes them off. Why should he concern himself with anyone else when he's the one at the top of the game? "I got people talkin' down, man, like I give a fuck," he raps. And so while he was lyrically cryptic in his past feuds with the likes of Common and Kendrick Lamar, Drake stuck to his "Energy" mantra and wasted little time on his beef with Meek Mill—just two quick, successive diss tracks. It's been some time since he's needed the "sensitive" angle to find success, and he no longer relies on the myth-building of "Started From the Bottom". "Energy", with its hater-baiting video, is Drake's standing magnum opus: Complain about him all you want, try to take his crown from him. He'd like to see you try. —Matthew Strauss

    Drake: "Energy"

    D.R.A.M.

    “Cha Cha”

    #1EpicCheck / EMPIRE

    34

    Despite how it might look, the nickname D.R.A.M. has nothing to do with "drama," though the Virginia rapper found plenty of that with his deliriously bubbly "Cha Cha". D.R.A.M. stands for "Does Real Ass Music," so it follows that "Cha Cha" is a real-ass song. Though the original version of "Cha Cha" samples some of the illest fire ever recorded, D.R.A.M. maintained the song’s bounding energy in future, royalty-free versions in a way that attracted inevitable attention.

    To be sure, "Cha Cha" is a horndog’s anthem. D.R.A.M., rippling with enthusiasm, is at the bar where Latin girls go, hoping to score with a "Dominican that resembles Taina." D.R.A.M.’s equipment is minimal—that looping SNES beat complete with the Mario "coin" sound, a little functional Spanish, a fondness for Latin cuisine, a splash of liquid courage—but the appeal is universal. The joy in "Cha Cha" will be sensed mañana, and every future mañana. —Corban Goble

    D.R.A.M.: "Cha Cha"

    Panda Bear

    “Tropic of Cancer”

    Domino

    33

    When a parent becomes terminally ill, one of the first things the children may experience is a vertiginous feeling of unreality. Time moves in a different way than you're used to. Things that seemed important a day before become suddenly trivial. The future collapses and rockets ahead simultaneously, like one of Hitchcock's dizzying dolly zooms.

    For anyone who has been through it, the way Noah Lennox recounts his own family's experience of his late father's cancer will probably feel eerily familiar, from the initial denial—"When they said he's ill/ Laughed it off as if it's no big deal/ What a joke to joke no joke," he sings, in a dazed deadpan—to the unexpected forms that acceptance may take. When I met up with Lennox in Lisbon earlier this year, he explained that the song's more cryptic lines ("Sick has to eat well too") were a way of expressing "sympathy for disease, trying to forgive disease"—of seeing disease as "just another thing in the universe that's trying to survive."

    It's an unusual perspective, but from the sound of the song, you can tell he's not being ironic: Rarely has Lennox's falsetto sounded more like a choirboy's, and the combination of the "Last Post" bugle call that introduces the song and the misty Tchaikovsky harp that comprises its melody perfectly evokes that fragile serenity that comes when the worst is finally over, and there's no longer anything to be afraid of. —Philip Sherburne

    Panda Bear: "Tropic of Cancer"

    Alessia Cara

    “Here”

    Def Jam

    32

    Pop hits have the habit of dismissing pessimism and angst as uncomfortable, unsellable emotions—mere hurdles meant to be cleared. It could feel as though, to make it to the top of the charts, you needed to approach PSA levels of positivity, assuring everyone everything will always get better. But what about those who are cool with feeling bummed out and serving as the perennial wallflower? Enter Alessia Cara’s "Here", written by the teenager after suffering through a night at an insufferable party full of boys who wouldn’t leave her alone, music she didn’t like, and cliques with which she never even hopes to click. Cara’s lyrics sport the specificity of a diary entry, with in-the-room details making these three minutes vivid. And above a stomping, defiant beat, her voice dips into low, annoyed murmurs and leaps into strident, sure-of-herself commands. Unapologetic but not rude, Cara argues that indifference is OK and that being uncomfortable isn’t unacceptable. She is positive about seeming negative. "Here" is an overdue anthem for a choir of universal introverts—happy to be singing in the privacy of their own homes, alone or in intimate, familiar groups.  —Grayson Haver Currin

    Alessia Cara: "Here"

    Kamasi Washington

    “The Rhythm Changes”

    Brainfeeder

    31

    Buried within saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s sprawling three-hour debut album, The Epic, "The Rhythm Changes" is a bit of a digression, an island of R&B shuffle in an ocean of blissed-out and ebullient spiritual jazz. Sung by Patrice Quinn, it has the lush arrangement and easy-going feel of a '70s Stevie Wonder tune. It also has the positive message—about the nature of change, about the passing of time. But "The Rhythm Changes" does not feel out of place, even when juxtaposed against the record’s screechier extremes. It comes off like a secular prayer, a call-and-response hymn that offers a different path to the transcendent mood that preoccupies the bulk of The Epic. Though Washington and his bandmates spend the middle of the song swapping solos, it’s only in the outro—when the whole ensemble chimes in together, buoyed by a string arrangement and then a choir—that the song reaches its heady, slightly cosmic, culmination. —Aaron Leitko

    Kamasi Washington: "The Rhythm Changes"

    Missy Elliott

    “WTF (Where They From)” [ft. Pharrell]

    Atlantic

    30

    Sometimes I like to treat myself to a Missy Elliott video mini-marathon. I watch as many clips as I can stand in the middle of my workday before my fidgeting can no longer be contained in an office chair (usually three or four). I was reminded I was overdue for a Missy session the first time I watched the video for "WTF (Where They From)", Elliott's first single in years. The first time I watched it, I could feel the grin spread across my face, and then I watched it again. And again. You can measure the success of a Missy Elliott single by the force of its liberating glee, and she was having more fun here, sounding freer and more invincible, than she has since 2007's "Lose Control". —Jayson Greene

    Missy Elliott: "WTF (Where They From)" [ft. Pharrell]

    Julia Holter

    “Feel You”

    Domino

    29

    The music of L.A. art-pop composer Julia Holter usually comes pre-loaded with big ideas that might carbon-date back to Ancient Greece or Jazz Age Paris. But beyond passing thoughts such as "I should read Colette" or "What’s ekstasis again?", listeners mainly jettison this stuff, like the bundled software you delete from a new laptop to make it yours. What we care about are the wondrous musical forms Holter spies through her erudite keyholes, and she flings the door wide open on "Feel You". Though she can’t be pinned to a single cultural register, many of her most striking songs are roughly one part '70s West Coast pop and two parts early music. She flips the ratio on one of the most luminous songs ever set on a rainy day. "You know I love to run away from the sun," Holter sings in a powerful, purposeful flit. There’s something of baroque music in the buzz of a harpsichord and the ingenious chorus, where a thorny scale stands out against the easily resolving chords of the verses, but a pert bubblegum bounce dominates. Though thoughtful and unique, the song is perfectly immediate, and there’s a type of artistic maturity in that simplicity. Music can always borrow gravitas from scholarly footnotes, but here, the Rosetta Stone is Holter herself, though not in a "confessional" sense. Rather, she records her direct impressions of an inhabited world, not of her reading. The impetus becomes the sheer capacity of her nimble, emotive voice and the stickiness of her un-automatic melodic choices. A festival parade passes by; the mist is smeared with city lights; someone was wearing a raincoat—these are the kinds of glimpses one actually remembers, outside of the stories constructed in memory, much less narratives polished smooth by antiquity. After all the studious settings, Holter turns out to be her own best subject. You feel her. —Brian Howe

    Julia Holter: "Feel You"

    Carly Rae Jepsen

    “Run Away With Me”

    Interscope / School Boy / 604

    28

    In what should have been the lead single for her critically beloved but relatively inert third album E•MO•TION, Carly Rae Jepsen shot another Cupid’s arrow right at her sweet spot of transcendent genericism and got something explosively romantic as a result. "Run Away With Me", like Annie’s "Heartbeat" or Robyn’s "Dancing On My Own", is purified and paradigmatic; Jepsen goes so breathless with longing that the object of her affection begins to seem less like a person and more like pop music proper, its solitary and universal embrace. The track begins with a blistering riff—some bagpipe-cum-saxophone-cum-trumpet monster, woozy with rainbows and a slight kazoo fizz—and then kicks into Jepsen’s babydoll verses, as triplets beat softly underneath. The drums build, fill, metastasize, and by the chorus, "Run Away With Me" is racing.

    It’s a Gravitron of the genre—neon, dizzying, and ruinous, built with factory precision. Embedded deep within the machinery are six Swedish sorcerers pulling the biggest levers in their possession. The track’s centrifugal yearning pins you fully, blasts glitter into the sky. —Jia Tolentino

    Carly Rae Jepsen: "Run Away With Me"

    Thundercat

    “Them Changes”

    Brainfeeder

    27

    Throughout 2013’s "Heartbreaks + Setbacks", Thundercat surveyed the gradual decline of a relationship. On "Them Changes", the bass virtuoso has moved beyond the day-to-day struggle and has fully arrived at devastation. His heart is no longer breaking—it’s gone. "Nobody move," he instructs, "there’s blood on the floor." Right at the jump, he instills a sort of crime-scene panic, and soon enough, he sheds some of the hyperbole and gets to the heart of the matter: He’s been dumped and is getting very drunk to dull the pain. His burbling funk jam about feeling debilitated and broken is, ironically, fueled by the same Isley Brothers beat that’s sampled on "It Was a Good Day".

    Such a shitty day needs a banger, and it’s only appropriate that Thundercat’s powerhouse collaborators/besties Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington come through with contributions. Washington’s wildest solo begins right as the song fades out, and Lotus’ work is largely atmospheric. In its position as the centerpiece of his otherwise sedate mini-album The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam, "Them Changes" also serves as the midpoint between Thundercat’s two best overall looks: It’s got emotional turmoil sung in a bruised falsetto, and it’s got expertly performed six-string bass funk. This year, Pharrell pledged his allegiance to Thundercat after hearing "Them Changes". "He is a necessity," Pharrell said, and he isn’t wrong. —Evan Minsker

    Thundercat: "Them Changes" (via SoundCloud)

    Tame Impala

    “Eventually”

    Interscope

    26

    "Eventually"—what a loaded word Kevin Parker used to name the bittersweet ballad at the center of Currents. Likewise, it's a thought you'll find at the crux of pessimists and optimists alike, the hinge of their secret doubts and quiet hopes swaying back and forth as it's pushed along by time. And it's true, only time will tell. To hear Parker sing it himself in all the song's warm technicolor glow, you'd peg him a reformed defeatist, if only because, after all the times he's seen love go south, there's probably nowhere to go but up. It's right there in that heart-wrenching chorus, those two lines delivered in the weightless breakdown of Tame Impala's rockist synth-pop: "But I know that I'll be happier, and I know you will, too." Parker can't see the future, but damn if he hasn't been through this before.

    Why "Eventually" stands out among an album of wall to wall masterworks is its apparent duality, the tension of someone wanting to believe what experience plucked from their heart. Sure, the band's crystalline chords shimmer, their slinky bass lines sway, their drums bounce and pop, but you can't escape the trampled empathy in Parker's voice. That dichotomy sets us up for the song's best trick, one second of bated-breath silence after the music swells to the rafters. It's our moment of truth, the hinge on which we can move on from our deep-seated doubts or cling to them like a deflated life raft. "Eventually" won't tell us what happens next, but it sure does make the future look bright. —Patric Fallon

    Tame Impala: "Eventually"

    D'Angelo

    “Sugah Daddy”

    RCA

    25

    So this guy shows up all of a sudden, and it's that one guy. Fourteen years ago you thought you had something good going, and all of a sudden he ghosted—stopped returning your calls. Or anyone's. Every so often you heard a rumor about him: he wasn't doing so hot, or he was trying to pull himself back up from not-so-hot. You'd basically given up hope and moved on. And now here he is on your doorstep... and goddamn is he in incredible shape. Kinkier than ever, too.

    That's how "Sugah Daddy" presented D'Angelo at the tail-end of last year. It supercharges its funk by understating it: a clap-slap-snap beat, staccato piano stabs, and a dubbed-out, phased-up horn section, just barely tracing the contours of a groove that swings like hip-bones. Nothing obscures D'Angelo's voice, or rather his voices, as they casually dive and flip between registers, the kind of vocal performance you can't pull off unless you're utterly sure of your power. Every line is either an offhanded aside or rendered in harmonies so tight that no single melody dominates them. There's a bit of Prince in his phrasing, a bit of Funkadelic, and a lot of a knowing smirk—when you lean in to make out what he's singing, that's when he makes his move. "Sugah Daddy" plays on the pop history of both of its title's words; its lyric just barely stays on the right side of the line between super-creepy and super-hot. And it's definitely the sexiest song ever to mention a queef. —Douglas Wolk

    D'Angelo: "Sugah Daddy"

    Erykah Badu

    “Cel U Lar Device”

    Motown / Control Freaq

    24

    By dancing like nobody’s watching in that liminal space between the personal and the universal, Erykah Badu’s "Cel U Lar Device" deserved more than its share of any "smart" gadget's data plan in 2015. Drake, of course, picked up this game of telephone with his meme-able, undeniable "Hotline Bling", which itself reaches back to communal memory via a sparse '70s soul sample that could evoke civil rights protests, radio background music, or Virginia hip-hop up-and-comer D.R.A.M.’s own 2015 hit "Cha Cha". And yet OVO Sound's "Marvins Room" drunk-dialer can’t help but invest his Proustian mobile-phone reminiscence with ickily in-character, psychosexual condescension. Not his sometime mentor Badu, whose gender-flipping "Hotline" rework doesn’t seem overly fussed about her missing caller. The Toronto rapper/singer's successful slickness becomes the Atlanta R&B/hip-hop crossover godhead’s transcendent absurdity, four minutes turn into six-and-a-half, and—as she and co-writer Seven, her son with André 3000, put it here—"such ‘n’ such"; the difference is embodied in plainspoken "cell phone" for Badu’s whimsical yet sophisticated "cellular device." Since expanded into an entire But You Caint Use My Phone mixtape, "Cel U Lar Device" solidified a commercial smash as part of Internet-era folk culture, and confirmed that we’re connected most deeply when we’re casually, cosmically (maybe a little weirdly?) ourselves.

    Plus, like the Slits’ "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" or Ananda Shankar’s "Jumpin’ Jack Flash", you can play it around people who’re sick of the original. When the gong hits, the bass drops out, or the actually hotline-style pre-recorded greeting rings out about DJing a relative's Slip N Slide party, the moment will feel like yours and yours alone. —Marc Hogan

    Erykah Badu: "Cel U Lar Device"

    Future

    “March Madness”

    Free Bandz

    23

    As all great street rappers do, Future walks the line between hero and villain, and the divide is typically defined by a listener's willingness to fully engage with his work. From a distance, he's an artist who glorifies Xanax binges, but if you let his music engulf your spirit you'll realize that it's about how there's no glory to be found in a Xanax binge because the world is a horrible place and only pain is real. (Fig. 1.) Usually his tales are in the sound itself—he raps in brutalist nursery rhymes that reveal meaning through repetition and over beats that derive their power from the amount of pressure they put on your chest—but "March Madness" is the one track in his recent output that explicitly connects his struggle to the struggles of the world around him. "All these cops shooting niggas—tragic" is an incomplete thought, like basically every phrase to fall out of Future's mouth this year, but it might just provide a tangible enough source of trauma through which literal-minded listeners can recognize his more abstract cries for help. —Andrew Nosnitsky

    Future: "March Madness"

    Drake

    “Know Yourself”

    Cash Money

    22

    It took virtually no time for "I was running through the six WITH MY WOES!", from Drake’s "Know Yourself", to become pop music’s decodable du jour. Whether you choose to acknowledge Drake’s definition of "woes"—it’s an acronym for a mantra his crew lives by, working on excellence—or have decided to remain blissfully ignorant in keeping with an entire lane of Internet-y Drake merchandise, it matters not. What matters is that that particular musical moment (about 1:47 in, right when the beat drops) disabused listeners from the notion that this was your run-of-the-mill retail mixtape.

    In a year splattered with Drake’s agendas—fuck Meek Mill! New Raptors jerseys! I made a mixtape with Future! I can dance!—it’s best to default to one of his older maxims. Once the beat dropped in "Know Yourself," nothing was the same. —Corban Goble

    Drake: "Know Yourself"

    Kendrick Lamar

    “The Blacker the Berry”

    Top Dawg Entertainment

    21

    "The biggest hypocrite of 2015" is the title that Kendrick Lamar gave himself on the opening verse of "The Blacker the Berry". That ain’t true. Objectively, subjectively, there are no advanced metrics or corrupted voting committee that would give Lamar that designation. Except that the only person who matters in that assessment is the one with the mouth that declared it true. Lamar is his own harshest critic, and when he closed the song saying "Why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/ When gangbanging made me kill a nigga blacker than me," there was rightful questioning of respectability politics.

    But that reading didn't take into account Lamar’s nuance. The fuller context of To Pimp a Butterfly showed Lamar’s double consciousness tossing and thrashing with every issue: black-on-black violence, systematic racism, the strife of fame, and frustration over none of what’s he’s achieved being able to change all of that. Back in 2011 on "Ab-Soul's Outro" he calmly rapped, "See I spent 23 years on this earth searching for answers/ ‘Til one day I realized I had to come up with my own." "The Blacker the Berry" showed neither a sell-out nor revolutionary, but freed Lamar to once again wander unmarked trails, looking for guidance. —David Turner

    Kendrick Lamar: "The Blacker the Berry"

    Fetty Wap

    “Trap Queen”

    300

    20

    In some respects, "Trap Queen" is a song that only could have become popular now: It’s a genre-bending collision of styles that worked its way up from an unknown rapper’s SoundCloud to nearly the very top of the Hot 100, and getting millions of unsuspecting pop fans singing along about the process of buying, processing, and selling bulk amounts of cocaine. But in most other ways, it’s really a timeless song. In cascading, melodic waves it replicates the giddy, weightless sensation of falling in love as effectively as anything by the Beach Boys or the Jackson 5, and if you peel away the Jeezy-ish level of technical detail about cooking crack you’re left with same themes of devotion, trust, and domestic eroticism that people have been writing lyrics about for centuries. Fetty’s method of infusing trap with an addictive bubble gum rush proved the validity of this sugary wave of pop-rap, and in coming years we’ll most likely see his formula copied more times than we can count, but what will make "Trap Queen" a classic is the way it makes the familiar seem so new, just like any good longterm relationship. —Miles Raymer

    Fetty Wap: "Trap Queen"

    Vince Staples

    “Norf Norf”

    Def Jam

    19

    Vince Staples could be one of the great gangsta rappers of his time, if he weren't utterly appalled by the notion of selling inner-city despair as breezy entertainment. "I'm a gangsta Crip/ Fuck gangsta rap," he sneers on "Norf Norf", and it's an important distinction. Yes, he spent his youth running with the Crips, and while he doesn't apologize for that, he's not trying to glorify it, either.

    Staples dedicates much of his bracing debut album Summertime '06 to sucking the glamor out of the gangster fantasy, needling listeners with unceasing descriptions of violence and dehumanization, and refusing to offer a hopeful takeaway. He narrates without editorializing; usually his disdainful voice telegraphs his disgust for him, but on "Norf Norf", he relies on another tool to underscore the cruel absurdity of the street life: a seasick Clams Casino beat. A demented drone set to the stalled sputter of a motor that's been gutted for parts, it neutralizes the machismo in Staples' outlaw raps. —Evan Rytlewski

    Vince Staples: "Norf Norf"

    Jamie xx

    “Gosh”

    Young Turks

    18

    The thing I thought most about while listening to "Gosh" wasn’t Special Request or Zomby or any of the other early-'90s rave revivalists you could easily slot the song next to, but Talking Heads’ "The Big Country", a ballad by an art-school band about a man who can’t grasp America until he sees it from a plane. Like "The Big Country", "Gosh"—and all of Jamie xx’s In Colour—is a study in perspective: How cars become ants and roads become veins and how things that are very far away can suddenly seem uncannily close. Or like photography, the way taking certain angles on certain objects render those objects abstract, forcing you to see them again for the first time. As "Gosh" dilates slowly from close-up to panorama, it’s like that: The farther away we get, the more intimate the picture becomes.

    Twenty-three years ago the electronic label Warp put out a compilation called Artificial Intelligence, which took dance music out of the clubs and domesticated it for home use. The cover was a drawing of a skinless alien blowing smoke rings from a Barcalounger. Now aliens can take their earbuds on the subway, "Gosh" rattling around their heads like an urban lullaby. —Mike Powell

    Jamie xx: "Gosh"

    Grimes

    “REALiTi”

    4AD

    17

    Grimes has always treated "REALiTi" as a purely practical matter. The song arrived earlier this year in demo form as an apologetic gift to fans: "poorly recorded in the first place and never meant to be heard by anyone," wrote Claire Boucher, "so it’s a bit of a mess haha." Recorded during a fairly fruitless period of creative isolation in Squamish, it finds Boucher contemplating the divide between her old life and the one she lives now, with no trace of drama, regret, or ultimatum; that’s just is how it is these days.

    It's a refreshing enough sentiment, but "REALiTi"'s transcendent vibe eclipsed its plainspoken origins. As with Julia Holter's Have You in My Wilderness, the links to Boucher's past work are clear, but the composition behind its burbling synths and handclap rhythms feels fathoms deeper. Testament to Boucher’s skill as a producer, that depth isn't a matter of extra reverb, as it might have been on 2012's Visions. When Boucher revamped "REALiTi" as a CD- and digital-only Art Angels bonus track, she ditched the blur of the demo in favor of pin-sharp focus that captured its iridescence—the way it glimmers melancholy and euphoric depending on the light. "REALiTi" is an aura photo of a perfect pop song, one whose flowing color reveals all Boucher’s unspoken defiance and anxiety in nuance. The more you listen, the more it gives—it’s no surprise to find a seamless 10-hour loop of it on YouTube. —Laura Snapes

    Grimes: "REALiTi"

    Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment

    “Sunday Candy”

    self-released

    16

    Chance the Rapper cooked up a star-making campaign this year, and "Sunday Candy", off Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment’s Surf, was its warm, gooey center. An impossibly sweet, plainspoken song that compares love to holy bread on Sundays, "Sunday Candy" was written for Chance’s grandmother, an unmatched force of positivity in his life growing up in Chicago. That quality alone gives the song an aww-inducing relatability for a lot of us ("you singing too, but your grandma ain’t my grandma!"), but the love that "Sunday Candy" describes can be paired with just about anyone, from a crush to a parent to a friend. Surf had no shortage of joyful live instrumentation, but it all comes together best here, with piano, trombones, trumpets, a chorus, and a gorgeous vocal turn from Jamila Woods that makes the song feel like the final, breathtaking moment in a musical (that perfect, Grease-indebted music video certainly helps). "Sunday Candy" is uplifting in a way no other song in 2015 could possibly be, a moment of much-needed love and joy from an artist filled to the brim with both. —Eric Torres

    Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment: "Sunday Candy"

    Adele

    “Hello”

    XL

    15

    Now that 25 is the fastest-selling album in the history of the galaxy and Adele has single-handedly saved the music industry, resurrected the monoculture, and brought about world peace, it’s kinda weird to remember that there was a time when her triumphant return was not a sure thing. Adele’s years away from the spotlight had potentially portended a lengthy (or permanent) retreat from public life. Or, God forbid, a comeback full of happy songs. But the gale-force wind storm whipped up by "Hello"’s first "HALLO FROM THE OTHER SIIIIDE" blew away all that: the high priestess of heartbreak was back, and heartbreakier than ever.

    "Hello" proves that Adele continues to be better than anybody else in current pop music at communicating the misery of lost love. It’s a rock-solid, no-frills torch song that makes absolutely zero concessions to the fact that it was released in 2015. (The sepia-toned video, starring a flip phone and an old-school British telephone box, drove that point home.) It sounds like it could have been written at pretty much any point in history since the days of Alexander Graham Bell. But thank God it came out now, when we needed Adele the most. —Amy Phillips

    Adele: "Hello"

    Miguel

    “Coffee”

    RCA / Bystorm

    14

    "I wish I could paint our love," Miguel sings at the beginning of "Coffee", and the design of the song itself is painterly, a surreal, weightless swirl, like milk blooming through a cup of joe. Miguel wrote a song about love and lust and located all of its tension in a precise image: making coffee for someone else. Of course, he makes this very small, terrestrial image sound like falling through infinite shapeless atmospheres, because, as with 2012's "Use Me", Miguel's artistry is in conveying closeness and vulnerability as they actually feel, as ambiguous blurs of pressure and release; because intimacy is about bodies and their positions in space but is also about achieving a kind of bodilessness; because just after waking, reality still contains some of the texture of a dream. —Brad Nelson

    Miguel: "Coffee"

    Rihanna

    “Bitch Better Have My Money”

    Roc Nation

    13

    If, in 2015, women of a certain age and circumstance find themselves being consistently thwarted by any one behavior, it’s instinctive, nonsensical apologizing. Earlier this year, "Inside Amy Schumer" featured a skit—"I’m Sorry"— in which a panel of highly decorated women dependably and repeatedly sorry’d for things that were plainly not their fault: Dude brings you a cup of coffee when you asked for water? Fuck an apology, friend! Thus, when Rihanna released "Bitch Better Have My Money"—arguably the least apologetic song of the millennium, if not in the whole of recorded music—it felt like a revelation, a corrective, a necessary and instructive text. Rihanna has never been much for equivocating (if she believes "top" and "car" rhyme, who are we to suggest otherwise?), and her agenda here is straightforward: Pay me what you owe me. Don’t act like you forgot. She flatly delivers her demands over a big, echoing beat; her Barbadian patois imbues the words with an unexpected loveliness. It’s hard to imagine any other contemporary artist delivering these lyrics quite so convincingly, or with such beautiful bile. —Amanda Petrusich

    Rihanna: "Bitch Better Have My Money"

    The Weeknd

    “Can’t Feel My Face”

    Republic

    12

    Cocaine. Once again, Abel Tesfaye is talking about cocaine. For years, it’s been easy to knock Tesfaye for the avoidability of his self-inflicted hell. It stands to reason that if one feels bad about taking drugs and having sex, one might simply stop taking drugs and having sex. But there’s a levity to "Can’t Feel My Face" absent from the rest of Beauty Behind the Madness. The snappy bass line is excavated from Off the Wall-era Michael; the Jacksonian sweetness of Tesfaye’s voice counterbalances the potential severity of his lyrics. He’s singing about the possibility of overdosing on cocaine and/or his lady love, but he sounds happy about it. He loves it! If it’s a lie, he sold it well enough to become a bonafide pop star for the first time in his career. —Jeremy Gordon

    The Weeknd: "Can't Feel My Face"

    Sufjan Stevens

    “Should Have Known Better”

    Asthmatic Kitty

    11

    As with the rest of Sufjan Stevens’ masterful Carrie & Lowell, "Should Have Known Better" derives much of its force from its harrowing autobiographical account of Stevens’ relationship with his late, troubled mother. ("When I was three, three maybe four, she left us at that video store.") Yet most of the song’s emotion is directed inward, as Stevens’ grief ripples into regret and self-recrimination, with his lyrics illustrating just how difficult it is to write any truly happy sentences that begin with the words "I should have".  Before the song draws to a close, however, its singer has internalized enough tough wisdom ("The past is still the past, a bridge to nowhere") to permit in a glimmer of light, "My brother had a daughter, the beauty that she brings, illumination," granting both song and album a rare moment of peace and the prospect of renewal. —Matthew Murphy

    Sufjan Stevens: "Should Have Known Better"

    Vince Staples

    “Lift Me Up”

    Def Jam

    10

    While being black in America has never been easy, being black in America in 2015 is culturally, economically, and politically nightmarish in ways that are nearly existential. It’s often possible to fall into a double-bind of perceived judgments, where others’ seeming disdain becomes a lens through which to view one’s own appearance, speech, mannerisms, even skin tone. The first full song on Summertime ‘06 confronts this notion head on. "I’m just a nigga," Vince Staples begins, his flow flailing somewhere between swagger and shrug, "until I fill my pockets/ And then I’m MisterNigga." From there, the Long Beach-born MC is off and loping through rhetorical thickets so dank and dense with allusion that true meaning becomes a quest without tangible rewards, and paranoia and reality blur deceptively. Producers DJ Dahi and No I.D. grind together pensive, bleary synthesizer chords so cryptically that the song’s vision of daily life floods with haunted house dread. Yet the throbbing chorus of "Lift Me Up"—brightening slightly, multiplying Staples into titular echoes—eases this polemic into the realm of uneasy triumph. This isn’t the discernible tenor of Black Lives Matter protests; it’s the bass pulse rumbling inaudibly, just beneath the surface of things. —Raymond Cummings

    Vince Staples: "Lift Me Up"

    Courtney Barnett

    “Depreston”

    Mom & Pop / Marathon Artists

    9

    According to TripAdvisor, there are precisely five "Things to Do" in the Melbourne suburb of Preston—and coming in at number two on that list of attractions is…the local library. This is the humdrum setting of "Depreston", which finds Courtney Barnett considering a move away from the town’s quaint coffee shops to a place further out, where green space is plentiful. But whereas previous generations found solace in the predictability of tree-lined streets and boxy houses, this 28-year-old can’t help but feel depressed while eyeing the innards of a deceased estate, the ghosts of the past tugging at her in the form of left-behind war photos, sugar cans, and, most pointedly, a handrail in the shower. The house may have been someone’s dream, but not hers.

    The minor tragedy plays out in Barnett’s calm, scratchy drawl along with a vaguely country-fied guitar and backbeat. "Depreston" could not be more low-key if it tried, like an old Jeff Tweedy demo, but this does not make its emotional climax any less devastating. When the hook finally comes around—"If you’ve got a spare half a million/ You could knock it down and start rebuilding"—Barnett’s scattered observations come into focus. This is a song about not being able to own things. About letting go of ancestors’ desires. About the price of denying death. It’s a generational anthem that’s not anthemic at all. —Ryan Dombal

    Courtney Barnett: "Depreston"

    D'Angelo

    “Really Love”

    RCA

    8

    "I don’t know if I trust you, but I really love you," whispers a woman credited as just Gina, in Spanish, at the end of the dark, stringed, flamenco swoon that introduces "Really Love". Her voice fades like a memory, and a harp from a dream sequence dissolves the scene; the beat and the soft-shoe bass start knocking, and the track—an indelibly cinematic single and instant classic off D’Angelo’s magnificent surprise album—sweeps you off your feet.

    Written closer to Voodoo’s release than to the Santa-like drop of Black Messiah and leaked in 2007 by Questlove to Triple J, "Really Love" feels as worn-in as it does serendipitous. It’s a relationship that’s teased and frustrated over a decade, which rises, in this six-minute rekindling, to the level of the streetlights and stars. For the length of the track, a hundred dusty particulars weave into a fantasia, in which love sounds effortless but tastes hard-won and real. "I’m not an easy man to overstand," sings D’Angelo, who falsetto-croons his affection like he’s cajoling, even apologizing: "I’m in really love with you." By the end, your heart has synced up to that lopsided, soft, gilded refrain. —Jia Tolentino

    D'Angelo: "Really Love"

    Grimes

    “Flesh Without Blood”

    4AD

    7

    In the three years since Visions launched her into the upper echelon of indie stardom, Claire Boucher made headlines more as a fashion icon and a lightning rod than as a musician. But any doubts about her skill as a consummate polymath producer were detonated with the release of "Flesh Without Blood". A deceptively joyful combination of a hopscotching beat, lilting melody, and Boucher’s featherlight cooing, Art Angels’ lead single is the rare breakup song about a non-romantic relationship. (Grimes says she doesn’t write about love anymore.) Written "for a former best friend of mine," about "being really disappointed with someone who you really once truly admired," "Flesh Without Blood" contains some of the most quietly devastating lines of the year: "I don’t see the light I saw in you before/ ...And now I don't care anymore." It served as a razor-sharp reminder that Claire Boucher is a musical force to be reckoned with, a woman remaking pop in her own image. —Amy Phillips

    Grimes: "Flesh Without Blood"

    Young Thug

    “Constantly Hating” [ft. Birdman]

    300 Entertainment / Atlantic

    6

    Young Thug released a lot of crucial music in 2015, but few songs make a better case for him as a virtuoso vocal performer than "Constantly Hating", the snaking opener from his debut retail release Barter 6. Thug turns a shrinking violet of a beat, from Atlanta's newest master of understatement, Wheezy, into a playground for his wildest improvisations. The song is one continuous zig-zag. He creates extreme dynamics at unexpected junctures, delivering much of the first verse in a facetious stage whisper. Though they build carefully on one another, every sticky phrase sounds like some crooked fractal of the whole, and could be the basis of an entire song for a lesser artist ("I'm a beast, I'm a beast, I'm a mobster," "I let that choppa go blocka blocka, get back son," "I can’t stop stacking fucking figuuures"). Eventually, Birdman drops in like a block of granite. Run another two or three times through "Constantly Hating", and every mischievous detail embeds itself into your longterm memory. —Winston Cook-Wilson

    Young Thug: "Constantly Hating" [ft. Birdman]

    Tame Impala

    “Let It Happen”

    Interscope

    5

    "Let It Happen" functions as the neon-trimmed, infinity-mirrored portal into Currents, an album that sees Kevin Parker expunge the last vestiges of weed-scented elephantine riffage from Tame Impala’s arsenal in favor of shimmering soft-rock, digi-R&B beats and French house filters. You can hear that process of abandoning past orthodoxies play out in both Parker’s zen-koan lyrics ("Try to get through it/ Try to bounce to it") and the song’s labyrinthine structure—when the track locks into a looped synth-stutter near the halfway point, it serves as both a nostalgic throwback to the sound of skipping vinyl and a battering ram into a new dimension. And true to the song’s fatalist philosophy, Parker uses the recording console like a Ouija board, sliding in and out of the song’s many sections as if guided by some subconscious, supernatural force. But despite its seven-minute sprawl, "Let It Happen" remains a highly intimate, interior experience. This isn’t so much psych rock as psyche rock—the sort of insta-jam that feels like it’s being broadcast to you via telepathy rather than a stadium PA. —Stuart Berman

    Tame Impala: "Let It Happen"

    Kendrick Lamar

    “King Kunta”

    Top Dawg Entertainment

    4

    To Pimp a Butterfly was rolled out with a feint ("i") and a pump-fake (an unreleased, untitled record that only appeared live on "The Colbert Report"), followed by advanced hype from Pharrell, who promised an "unapologetically black" and "AMAZING" single that might set the world ablaze. In talking up its musicality, Pharrell may have set expectations too far afield for a record more interested in sly cleverness than brash novelty. "King Kunta" is less concerned with capital-I Innovation, instead unspooling an interconnected web of references musical and lyrical, historical and emotional.

    Produced by Terrace Martin and Sounwave, the uptempo, four-on-the-floor breakbeat channels Curtis Mayfield via DJ Quik, its musical touch-points as layered in potential interpretations as the lyrics themselves. Witness the friction of its contradictions: a universally compelling funk groove that's survived generations of barbecues carrying its gravely serious conceit, a reference to the torture of Roots' protagonist. Meanwhile, Kendrick grins knowingly, his bemusement front-and-center while the details shift, oblique one moment and transparent the next, depending on your perspective. In a snap, a private joke becomes pregnant with significance. Just one example: a line about "sharing bars" now sounds like prophecy, while reinforcing the song's unspoken promise—to endure in the name of principle. —David Drake

    Kendrick Lamar: "King Kunta"

    Jamie xx

    “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” [ft. Young Thug and Popcaan]

    Young Turks

    3

    The first time through Jamie xx’s In Colour, "I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)" might scan as the album’s outlier, coming as it does after the dizzying pinnacle of "Loud Places". Profane instead of reverent, sun-bright instead of club-dark, drunk instead of ecstatic, "I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)" is about getting low instead of climbing high. Built from little more than a snare roll, finger snaps, and chimes, Jamie xx made a breezy pop confection that alights on dancehall, trap, as well as doo-wop without ever settling on any one sound. On top of the beat, Jamie relies on the yipped boasts of Young Thug, the toasts of Popcaan, and deft placement of a sample from a cappella group, the Persuasions. When reached about the news that his old band’s 1972 song had been sampled, Jimmy Hayes of the Persuasions explained the song as a come-on: "I ain't got no money in my pockets, they don't jingle, but as long as we can get together everything is gonna be alright," and Young Thug updates that sentiment, crowing, "I'ma ride in that pussy like a stroller." The repeated shout of "I know" becomes a protest in its own way, three very different people uniting in defiant belief. —Andy Beta

    Jamie xx: "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)" [ft. Young Thug and Popcaan]

    Drake

    “Hotline Bling”

    Cash Money

    2

    "Hotline Bling" is the Drake singularity, the moment where he becomes self-aware and he wields his infamy like a weapon. Even the song's rise to fame mirrors the kind of "Started From the Bottom" myth Drake loves—it dropped unceremoniously with minimal promotion and gradually became inescapable. And why not? "Hotline Bling" took the wispy stale air of sad-drunk, “Marvin’s Room” Drake and suffused it with warm, tropical colors. It’s the perfect thing to soundtrack the end of summer when the sky gets a little pinker and your summer flings come to an end.

    That "Hotline Bling" found such immense popularity illustrated an arguable skill of Drake's to pluck songs from their regional hit purgatory and put his own stamp on them, with the original performer usually left to languish in Drake's shadow. "Hotline Bling" is essentially a reworking of D.R.A.M.'s "Cha Cha", which is in turn a reworking of Timmy Thomas' ’70s hit "Why Can't We Live Together; by autumn, the song slipped out of Drake's control entirely, becoming fodder for jokes, wedding DJ sets, and gimmicky covers and interpretations. Erykah Badu reinvented it with a version almost as good as the original, while Justin Bieber pulled a stunt that required fans to call an actual hotline to hear Bieber croon the song into their earpiece. It wasn't Drake's song anymore—it was everyone's.

    In typically calculating fashion, Drake absorbed all that attention and then spun it back on the public. Dropping a music video—a vision of Drake pulling awkward shapes against pastel-colored James Turrell walls, purportedly designed to encourage fans to make their own memes and jokes—almost five months after the song first debuted made it an event all over again. Because if there's anything Drake knows, it's that people can't be laughing at you if you're laughing with them.

    That idea is core to "Hotline Bling." That one of the softest Drake tunes ever dominated airwaves in the wake of the Meek Mill beef was the best revenge he could hope for—the words "you gettin' bodied by a singin' nigga" from "Back To Back" became a self-fulfilling prophecy. As huge as its success was, "Hotline Bling" still never gave Drake that coveted #1 spot; he was held at bay first by his fellow Canadian the Weeknd, and then by Adele (or maybe it was the fault of his own business decisions). Whatever it was, it hardly mattered, because at that point, "Hotline Bling" was barely a song at all anymore. It was one big goofy, self-aware cultural force. And there's nothing that sums up Drake—as shrewd, manipulative, and lovable as he was in 2015—better than that. —Andrew Ryce

    Drake: "Hotline Bling"

    Kendrick Lamar

    “Alright”

    Aftermath / Interscope / Top Dawg

    1

    When To Pimp a Butterfly was released in mid-March, it was not quite a third of the way through what, by any measure, has been a miserable year. The world, and America in particular, and for minorities specifically, has experienced a veritable buffet of social garbage. And it looks like there's a decent chance the same will be true next year, too. Will we be alright, as Kendrick Lamar assures? And who is that "we"? In the realm of the pop anthem, "we" have had a long life. Perhaps it’s the "we" who are champions, who will rock you. But more likely it’s the same "we" who shall overcome. "Alright" spoke to black Americans oppressed and murdered, these days so frequently by those on the government payroll and sworn to protect. "We hate popo," Lamar raps, "wanna kill us dead in the streets for sure." It’s a basic sentiment that in this country has become undeniably truer day after day.

    But after Lamar’s dirge comes the chorus: "We gon be alright," an ebulliently simple five-syllable refrain, a future-tense assertion of delivery to a better, more peaceful place. In more than one instance, the song’s chorus was chanted at Black Lives Matter protests. It has soundtracked a movement. That's largely due to its holistic sentiment as a siren against innumerable injustices, but it has just as much to do with the fact that it's a great hook on a ferociously catchy song, produced by Sounwave and Pharrell Williams, with marching band propulsion and a jazz band's breezy reeds.

    On it, Lamar acts as master of ceremonies as much as rapper. He starts the song with an incantation borrowed from Alice Walker: "All my life I had to fight," before detailing a world wracked with addiction, lust, greed, and Satan—basically all the sins and their mayor. Then Pharrell comes in to sweep it all away. "We gon' be alright!" That this chorus is so infectious is no accident; it’s sung by the same guy who made "Happy".

    An argument could be made that the track's power is in the hook, the verses superfluous. And that might be true. Surely you can recite the chorus with no knowledge of the song, or even who sings it. Isn't that anonymous accessibility what makes an anthem? In that sense, with "Alright" did Kendrick Lamar write something timeless by writing something bigger than himself, something whose jubilant recitation turns us all into the author?

    That future tense is always coming, and in a sense it already came. In the time since the song was released, there’s been the murder of Freddie Gray, the suicide of Sandra Bland, the recent police cover up in Chicago, the shootings in San Bernardino, in Colorado, massacres in Beirut and Paris. Things, may in fact, be getting worse. Will we be alright? Who knows. But we’ll at least be together. —Matthew Schnipper

    Kendrick Lamar: "Alright"


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    Staff Lists: Albums of the Year 2015: Honorable Mention

    These albums didn't make our Top 50 of the year, but are exceptional nonetheless. This list is chosen by Pitchfork editors to highlight some very good records that left a mark. Some were low profile and some were popular, but all stood out in this exceptional year for music.


    Car Seat Headrest

    Teens of Style

    Matador

    Teens of Style is not technically Car Seat Headrest’s debut, but a greatest hits, a career retrospective, a rarities comp, and a remix album all rolled into one. In the last five years, frontman and band mastermind Will Toledo has been churning out a steady stream of music, recording first in his family car and later in his dorm room at Virginia Commonwealth University. Before signing to Matador Records, he had released via Bandcamp 11 albums of original tunes, an output that approaches that of his hero, Robert Pollard. For his proper debut, Toledo re-recorded 11 older songs, fleshing out fairly skeletal arrangements to create towering monuments to indie rock. The result sounds like both the closing of one door and the opening of another.

    These songs sprawl in ways they never did before, in ways they never could before, but what’s astonishing is just how much detail and nuance Toledo gets out of the lo-fi setting. His band layers chiming power-pop post-punk guitars, thrumming synths, and intricate Beach Boys harmonies to say something essential about millennial angst. Especially given its lyrical shout-outs to Michael Stipe and Matador Records exec Chris Lombardi, among other insiders, the whole thing could have sounded purely academic—the sound of a young man playing to his record collection. Instead, Teens of Style explores the ways that our favorite music and our biggest heroes can serve as conduits to the larger world, and Toledo sings like he can’t wait to provide that experience for others. —Stephen M. Deusner

    Car Seat Headrest: "Times to Die" (Buy on Bandcamp)

    Elysia Crampton

    American Drift

    Blueberry

    Is it cheesy to say that Elysia Crampton’s American Drift feels like the type of art that belongs in a gallery? Unlike most of contemporary music’s quick thrills, this album is a pastiche that seems more in line the work of a super exciting young painter, like Jamian Juliano-Villani, who makes massive portraits of messed-up people, or maybe the kooky set builders Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe, who literally built a meth lab for people to walk around in. Like the most aggressive pursuers of the weirdly beautiful, this heady producer infuses ponderance and pleasure into her work through the simple fact of its literal and spiritual enormity.

    American Drift crushes genres as it piles on disparate elements: Lil Jon samples, cumbia rhythms, deeply reverent freeform poetry. The album’s funkiness is almost secondary to the fun of just listening to its many parts bob and weave through the baseline of electronic ambience. The Bolivian-born artist uses her singular sonic vocabulary to reflect a world that is breathless and difficult while wrestling with the many threads culture creates. American Drift feels like an attempt to illustrate everything—but instead of boiling the universe down to one complete thought, Crampton sploshes around paint and then scratches at its layers until she’s got a strange and delightful canvas. —Matthew Schnipper

    Elysia Crampton: "American Drift" [ft. Money Allah] (via SoundCloud)

    Dâm-Funk

    Invite the Light

    Stones Throw

    Damon Riddick (aka Dâm-Funk) is both a traditionalist and an innovator. On Invite the Light, he enlists a 1970s funk original (Junie Morrison of the Ohio Players), a G-funk hip-hop legend (Snoop Dogg), and a new-age psychedelic eccentric (Ariel Pink) for the same tracklist. It’s all in the name of breaking ground in familiar land. In the lead video for Invite the Light, Riddick caresses a keytar in a smoky room as his refrain turns over on itself: "We continue." It's a thesis. Taken at face-value, Dâm-Funk might seem like a revivalist mining a decades old aesthetic, but instead of a carefully executed schtick, his music is revelatory: funk is timeless, and evolving. And he has an inimitable knack for conjuring it up. —Jay Balfour

    Dâm-Funk: "We Continue" (via SoundCloud)

    Dej Loaf

    #AndSeeThatsTheThing EP

    Columbia

    "Damn I’m so little but I’m feeling like Shaquille," Dej Loaf raps on the chilly opening to her brisk #AndSeeThatsTheThing EP, and rarely has an artist offered a statement of purpose as efficiently. This is the rare major-label rap debut that delivers on the promise of an Internet phenom without compromise. Radio hit "Back Up" with Big Sean churns a Detroit electro sample into a bristling self-affirmation anthem, but it’s the guarded moments of tenderness that linger, from a duet with Future to "Butterflies", which is more like a spacey dream-pop ballad than a rap song. Dej is easy to root for because her writing is so forthright and frank, and on this sweet, short EP, she nails her entire dynamic in just six songs. —Matthew Ramirez

    Dej Loaf: "Back Up" [ft. Big Sean]

    DJ Paypal

    Sold Out

    Brainfeeder

    If Rimsky-Korsakov’s "Flight of the Bumblebee" were a footwork track that was part "Music for 18 Musicians", part funk carioca, it would basically be the title track of Sold Out. Like the rest of DJ Paypal’s mini-album, "Sold Out", is a testament to the elasticity of footwork as much as it is to his genius.

    In November, the Berlin-based, North Carolina-born Teklife producer dropped this EP, his most adventurous and emotionally incisive work to date, as well as first-ever footwork release on Brainfeeder. Throughout the record, DJ Paypal layers in '70s-era soul vocals, twizzling jazz sax lines, chintzy synths, and bubbling perc-u-lator sounds à la Cajmere. And he makes it sound like he’s beaming it in from an alternate universe, one accessible only to a Chosen Few. On the exuberant-turned-manic "Slim Trak", West African tam-tams punch through chants stacked so high they threaten to collapse in on themselves. "On a Cloud" sounds like vocoder aliens equipped with arcade lasers and the singular mission to get faded.

    It's been an important year for footwork, in part because it’s been the first full year without Teklife founder and big brother, DJ Rashad. Many producers haveexpressed a heightened sense of duty to do right by the man, to work towards fill the gaping hole he left behind. And so, they’ve been turning it out. DJ Paypal, along with his generation of younger footwork peers like Jlin, DJ Earl, DJ Taye, and some of his own tongue-in-cheek Mall Music crew, all dropped EPs or albums this year. Footwork legends RP Boo and DJ Spinn did as well. It’s fitting then that Sold Out closes with a track called "Say Goodbye", which could easily be read as an adieu to Rashad. It’s an expansive, skies-wide-open track, a shimmery unfurling of memory and longing. —Minna Zhou

    DJ Paypal: "Awakening" (via SoundCloud)

    DJ Richard

    Grind

    Dial

    DJ Richard’s Grind is Music for Airports gone techno. Yes, many of these songs have a consistent beat suitable for dancing (or at least nodding your head), but they just as frequently drift off into the abyss. This is a loose, unhurried album that works best when processed as one clump of electronic music with micro-movements and moods. For example, halfway through the song "Vampire Dub", gentle '90s IDM textures are suddenly accompanied by an extremely aggressive drum—the kind of wet, heavy snare a metal band would use—but it only lopes along, a trope of hardness that never turns particularly mean. The drum leaves, comes back, leaves again. It’s like the aural equivalent of someone who has a very important point to make but keeps forgetting it. There’s a beautiful charm to listening to all this unfold. It could have been a messy jumble of thoughts, but instead it’s a sneak peek into a busy, bright brain, working it all out on his own time. —Matthew Schnipper

    DJ Richard: "Vampire Dub"

    Downtown Boys

    Full Communism

    Don Giovanni

    In concert, Downtown Boys command all of your attention. The Providence, R.I.-based punk sextet is intense, combustible, and overflowing with conviction. It’s risky to check out and gaze at your phone, lest you wind up clobbered by a flailing saxophonist. They have the kind of energy that’s difficult to recreate on a recording—their music is an experience dependent on the band, but also the feedback and presence of an audience. So, it’s a relief that on their debut record, Full Communism, Downtown Boys still sound and feel like themselves. Recorded at Chicago’s Electrical Audio and produced by the band alongside Don Giovanni label-head, Joe Steinhardt, Full Communism documents the band’s raw, weird energy with little in the way of embellishment or refinement. There’s no getting around it: Downtown Boys are an earnest band. But despite their passions, they never register as smarmy. Part of the joy of being a Downtown Boys fan is bearing witness to a group of people with such a level of enthusiasm and conviction—about politics, about noise-making, and about community. Even on their cover of Springsteen’s 30-year-old hit "Dancing in the Dark", Downtown Boys seem like they’re 100% in the moment. —Aaron Leitko

    Downtown Boys: "Wave of History"

    Fetty Wap

    Fetty Wap

    300 Entertainment

    No one had the run Fetty Wap had in 2015: After "Trap Queen" blew the doors open, he placed three songs simultaneously on the Billboard Hot 100 chart—a rare feat usually associated with established names like Lil Wayne and Eminem—and nabbed four spots on the Billboard Hot Rap Songs chart, an unprecedented accomplishment in the 26-year history of that list. His eponymous debut album pulls off an equally uncommon task by maintaining the maximal exuberance of those hits for more than an hour. The self-contained record shares a similarity in execution to Waka Flocka Flame’s career-defining 2010 salvo Flockaveli, where the creative spring of a single mind is extracted and bottled for eternity in one full-length package. Fetty’s raps are the perfect alchemy of clumsy and charming, which might be an issue if most of the songs didn’t deliver hooks at this rampant a clip—17 songs with 17 unassailable choruses in a row. Fetty could retire now and he’d still have an all-time run, and an all-time hip-hop debut record to boot. —Matthew Ramirez

    Fetty Wap: "679" [ft. Remy Boyz]

    Girlpool

    Before the World Was Big

    Wichita

    Girlpool's debut LP bursts with the pressure of its own fragility, the duo of bassist Harmony Tividad and guitarist Cleo Tucker singing sweet melodies to each other while steadily plucking at their instruments, harmonizing to the heavens. It's the sound of two best friends navigating uncharted territory, walking down their street "a hundred million billion trillion times," as depicted in the title track. It sounds like learning to cook in your first apartment, or realizing you're the age your parents were when they first met. The best albums are the ones that give way to the creation of a self-contained world, every note in its rightful place. By boiling their songs down to their bare essence, Girlpool have achieved just that. —Cameron Cook

    Girlpool: "Before the World Was Big" (via SoundCloud)

    Hop Along

    Painted Shut

    Saddle Creek

    The wiry, bookish sound of Painted Shut will endure as long as MFA candidates pick up guitars, and Hop Along are at their vanguard. "By the time it’s old/ My face will have been seen/ And I’ll share a very/ Common poverty/ It’s a very common kind," Frances Quinlan sings on "Waitress", a vignette about a disgraced diner server. It’s the only guitar-rock lyric I heard this year that reminded me of Italo Calvino’s description of "habitual faces, whose features the bar mirror has watched thicken or sag,” for certain, and Hop Along spend all of their stellar third album leaping to capture these specific sorts of honors.

    Quinlan’s rough voice always sounds on the verge of giving out, but as a writer she is a tender guardian who sees dignity everywhere she looks: On "The Knock", she is moved to tears by the beaming Jehovah’s Witness who knocks on her door ("I never once seen a teenager look so radiant"), and "Buddy in the Parade" recalls the spectacular public breakdown of early-20th century cornetist Charles "Buddy" Bolden, who started frothing at the mouth during a parade performance and spent the rest of his life in a sanitarium. The songs are furiously angry in their energy and endlessly compassionate toward their targets, backing you into a corner and hugging you fiercely, like someone staging a very determined intervention on your behalf. —Jayson Greene

    Hop Along: "The Knock"

    Ibeyi

    Ibeyi

    XL

    Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Díaz’s debut album as Ibeyi opens with a sacred call to Eleggua, the deity of communication in Yoruban religion, a practice usually meant to signify the opening of a spiritual channel. As such, it’s a worthy placement: over the following 12 songs, Ibeyi conjures soulful, invigorating, and wholly spiritual music, inspired by swooning R&B-electronic practitioners like James Blake as much as by the French-Cuban twins’ deeply musical Yoruban heritage. The album is dedicated in part to their late father, Anga Díaz, a percussionist in Buena Vista Social Club, whose presence figures most prominently in Naomi’s stark use of the cajón and Batá drums that carry the album along at an arresting, breathless rhythm. But his ghost, and others, are all over Ibeyi: in the clipped vocal sample that opens the trip-hop-indebted "Think of You", in the narratives that drive somber ballads "Mama Says" and "Behind the Curtain", and in the many instances in which the twins break out into Yoruban chants, as on gorgeous, river goddess-dedicated, Beyoncé-approved "River". What makes Ibeyi truly exceptional, though, is the sisters’ obvious synergy, each breath and drum between the two suggestive of something both sacred and intangible. —Eric Torres

    Ibeyi: "River"

    Lower Dens

    Escape From Evil

    Ribbon Music

    You could chalk up the impressive strides that Lower Dens made on Escape From Evil to just smart business sense. Having watched Baltimore buds Beach House and Future Islands dramatically increase their festival-billing font size in recent years, Lower Dens hit the bullseye between the former’s wistful melodicism and the latter’s synth-pumped propulsion. But as you listen to singer Jana Hunter ache, quiver, grimace, and seethe her way through the record’s 10 songs, another motive becomes apparent. Lower Dens transformed from shadowy drone-rock experimentalists to a diamond-chiseled electro-pop crew because that’s precisely what these unflinching, at times brutally honest songs demanded: clear lines of communication, the static and noise scraped away to maximize their emotional impact.

    Consistent with the album’s glassy, austere sound, Hunter sings like someone with the stoic resolve to get herself through the most discomfiting of conversations, but with an underlying unease that suggests she could break down at any moment. But for Hunter, even the most difficult exchanges are something to cherish. Escape From Evil demands face-to-face interaction, whether it’s delivering bald expressions of desire ("Quo Vadis"), the last goodbyes in a broken relationship ("Ondine"), or remorse over inflicting psychological damage that can’t be undone ("I Am the Earth"). It’s easy to interpret that album title as a comment on the extremist forces currently hellbent on destroying America from without and within, but the real battleground surveyed on Escape From Evil is the one connecting our heads and our hearts, the space where our insecurities take root and stifle the sort of open, meaningful dialogue this album so bravely encourages. —Stuart Berman

    Lower Dens: "To Die in L.A." (via SoundCloud)

    Levon Vincent

    Levon Vincent

    Novel Sound

    Levon Vincent has always had a fierce independent streak, releasing his music largely through his own label, mentoring young producers, giving away digital versions of his vinyl-only tracks. The release of Levon Vincent, his debut album, seemed to take his proclivity for DIY to almost troll-ish levels. The album arrived (digitally) via a WeTransfer link in a tweet. If you were fortunate enough to get your hands on a copy of the (reasonably priced) 4xLP set, it arrived in a bubble-wrap pouch, four slabs of vinyl in unmarked sleeves, each labeled with a unique sticker hand-cut from a magazine. A re-printed handwritten note served as the tracklist; "Special Thanks to Everyone," it reads.

    All of this is notable only because the music matches the medium. Levon Vincent comprises 11 craggy, pockmarked tracks full of synths that refuse to march in exact lockstep with the drums. It offers up melodies that carry on a few bars longer than expected. Vincent plays with the conventions of techno the same way you might play fast and loose with a recipe’s ratios: a dash of extra krautrock here, a pinch of dub there. It's a cliche when talking about techno—machine music—that you can really hear the person behind it. On Levon Vincent it's more difficult to locate the machines behind the person. —Andrew Gaerig

    Levon Vincent: "Launch Ramp to tha Sky"

    Jessica Pratt

    On Your Own Love Again

    Drag City

    Draped over gorgeous fingerpicked guitar melodies, Jessica Pratt’s voice is a singular, otherworldly instrument. Yet the Californian sounds grounded and self-assured throughout her second album, On Your Own Love Again. In almost every song, she reaches out to someone who’s standing directly in front of her, but the distance is both palpable and insurmountable. Tears and pleas have given way to the sober realization that she’s arrived at a new phase in her life ("I see that you’re leaving, so what can I say"). It’s tempting to read some of Pratt’s real-life narrative in these songs. She’d lost her mother and ended a very long relationship. The album was home-recorded in a state of isolation—L.A. was right outside her window, but Pratt stayed inside, repeatedly playing these songs until they were exactly right (and her fingers began to hurt). She harmonizes with herself and occasionally tucks into full-on psychedelia, letting her voice and guitar melt into an entirely different register. Every song packs the unmistakable whiff of lingering pain, but there’s also acceptance—the sound of someone charting a new course in the face of loss. —Evan Minsker

    Jessica Pratt: "Back, Baby" (via SoundCloud)

    Protomartyr

    The Agent Intellect

    Hardly Art

    Across Protomartyr’s three albums, the Detroit band’s essentials have gone largely unchanged. Joe Casey’s poetry, for one, has always been engaging—a teetering pile of references and odd conversational phrases where rage, melancholy, and absurdity melt together. The band is often described as post-punk, which is probably due to Casey’s deep voiced bellow and overall intensity. It really depends on the song, though, since Greg Ahee’s guitar can either provide breakneck razorwire punk or glossy anthemic sheen. On their latest album The Agent Intellect, they’ve undergone their biggest change to date: They’ve become a better band. Casey’s ragged, slurred vocals from the debut album are long gone. Here, he turns in the best performance of his life, offering greater impetus to focus on his words. Alex Leonard’s drumming seems to have improved. It’s also their most kinetic album, offering very few pauses across its 44 minutes.

    With a few subtle tweaks and improvements, Protomartyr accentuate their strengths. Even better, there’s something intrinsically risky about the album’s most delicate moments. This band could have easily coasted on the garage rock immediacy of their debut album No Passion All Technique. Instead, they deliver the lengthy, patient "Ellen"—a love song about Casey’s mother. Instead of leaning on his more verbose inclinations, Casey repeats just a few lines over his band’s most beautiful music to date. It’s one of several moments where you get to peer into Casey’s experiences—"Why Does It Shake" is something his mother asked about the tremors in her hand, and "I Forgive You" references a chemistry teacher from Casey’s old high school who was recently locked up on child pornography and molestation charges.

    Those moments are what make Protomartyr such a captivating band—the promise that even though we might not always understand what every line means, there’s an implication that everything here comes from a place that’s real and personal. People don’t just pay attention to Joe Casey because of his voice or stage presence—people want to get to know him through this music. That’s partially why their annual hometown Jumbo’s gig on December 26 has become flooded with "false friends" and "weird faces"—"I don’t like it," he sings of the phenomenon on "Pontiac 87". If he keeps making music this good, he’s probably going to have to get used to the unwanted attention. —Evan Minsker

    Protomartyr: "Why Does It Shake?" (via SoundCloud)

    Prurient

    Frozen Niagara Falls

    Profound Lore

    Perpetual collapse and implosion: It’s a tough dynamic to sustain across a single song, let alone an entire career of them. Yet Dominick Fernow, who creates multi-faceted noise music as Prurient, has been at this game for many years, culminating in the double album Frozen Niagara Falls—a suite of 16 tracks that’s fearless in its utter capitulation to fear. On "Myth of Building Bridges", a modulated symphony of static dissolves into a muffled, digitized rebirthing ritual; on "Every Relationship Earthrise", he uses icy, fragmented synth-pop as the foundation for a sustained spasm of screaming that ultimately devours itself. The deep catharsis, though, comes more potently on the album’s semi-acoustic songs such as "Greenpoint" and "Christ Among the Broken Glass", which treat folk guitar like some ancient artifact and whispers like bloodcurdling, lung-melting confessions. If fear has become the blank canvas of our collective existence, Frozen Niagara Falls poignantly, harrowingly scrawls a map across it. —Jason Heller

    Prurient: "Greenpoint" (via SoundCloud)

    Susanne Sundfør

    Ten Love Songs

    Warner Music Group

    "Many people will get hurt," Norwegian pop songwriter Susanne Sundfør cautions early on her sixth album, with a coldness that leaves no doubt as to who’ll be administering that pain. As the title promises, these 10 songs are technically about love, but Sundfør’s conception of romance owes more to the brutality of the Kill Bill movies than the Hollywood idealism of Casablanca. "Silencer" opens with her standing over her lover's still-warm body clenching a gun. On "Delirious", she at least gives her paramour a head’s up when she vows to push him over the edge—it’s a threat, yes, but by this album's cutthroat standards, it’s also an expression of love.

    Sundfør backs up her bluster with some of the most unabashedly audacious pop compositions of the year. A sinister church organ rips through the gothy "Accelerate" with hellfire fury, while the raved-up EDM synths of "Kamikaze" hit like shocks from a downed power line. And for her grandest display, she’s assisted by M83’s Anthony Gonzalez on the 10-minute "Memorial", which plays like a mid-album classical recital break yet somehow fits right in on this bold, violent odyssey of a record. —Evan Rytlewski

    Susanne Sundfør: "Delirious"

    Colin Stetson / Sarah Neufeld

    Never were the way she was

    Constellation

    We’ve reached the point where we naturally assume a record this complex, where sounds intertwine so thoroughly, must be the product of looping and layering, but Stetson and Neufeld played the whole thing live in the studio, just her violin and his battery of reed instruments and the occasional wordless vocal. Much of the record is built around interlocking patterns, with Stetson using circular breathing to keep up with Neufeld’s violin. Together, they create surging soundscapes that have some of the same rushing qualities as Philip Glass or Moondog, but with an entirely less precise and more melancholy outcome than either of those forebears. The highly rhythmic approach of the album’s showcase tracks is balanced by more delicately melodic pieces—"Won’t Be a Thing to Become" is gorgeous and dusty, relying on simple themes to perfect its chilly atmosphere, while the title track is like a huge, eight-minute sigh of exhaustion.

    Though they’re perhaps best known for their mutual association with Arcade Fire, Neufeld and Stetson actually met before his involvement with that group, and this is their second collaboration, after 2013’s original score for Blue Caprice, a movie based on the story of the Beltway snipers. Their work together is assuming an identity as distinct as any of the myriad other projects either has been involved in. —Joe Tangari

    Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld: "The sun roars into view" (via SoundCloud)

    Viet Cong

    Viet Cong

    Jagjaguwar / Flemish Eye

    Some bands run hot and cold, but very few inhabit both temperatures at once like Viet Cong. The music on the band’s self-titled debut LP can be as stark as its black-and-white cover, and as frozen as their Calgary home. Yet these seven songs pump with boiled blood and stung nerves, as red as your hands when you’re worried they might be frostbitten. This bi-thermal, dark-and-light aura draws its energy from '80s and '90s post-punk, and it’s what makes this quartet exciting outside of the surface of their songs. They inject a fervent catchiness into their dour post-punk that makes tunes like "Silhouettes" sound as much like Blondie as Joy Division. So even though Viet Cong concludes with a bludgeoning 11-minute track called "Death", the song itself ends with a joyous burst of sprinting guitars. Viet Cong may sound like they live in a tunnel, but they always have their eyes on the light at the end of it. —Marc Masters

    Viet Cong: "Continental Shelf" (via SoundCloud)

    Young Thug

    Slime Season 1 & 2

    self-released

    Young Thug’s forebears, Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane, were moved to the same type of stylistic experimentation and excess as their successor. But Tunechi and Gucci spread out their quality offerings; neither came close to releasing something like the concentrated, cohesive double-dose of quality music represented by the combined 40-tracks of the Slime Seasonmixtapes. The tapes, put out in quick succession this fall, are a world unto themselves, a Halloween horrorshow built from rotting organic matter as Thug piles reference upon reference to flora and fauna, fungus, bees, cabbage. Listening feels like living in Poison Ivy’s greenhouse. Even the diamonds resemble pimples. The consistently high quality of what seems like a collection of odds and ends is notable. But more compelling is just how deep these 40 tracks take us into Thug’s self-made Hades.

    Throughout his career, Jeffrey Williams has most often been concerned with the joys of sex, violence and twisted verbalization. But on Slime Season 2, a new element emerged to accompany his famously bizarre style. It was apparent in poignant details, like this extra-musical tidbit: Thug is introducing us to a track’s producer, and mistakenly calls him an engineer. And then, bashfully, he apologizes: "I’m high, sorry." It’s a moment of tenderness that doesn’t explicitly evoke sex, a glimpse of Thug’s vulnerable underbelly. When someone speaks and/or raps in a nigh-incomprehensible slang, it’s reasonable to assume that he is trying to keep others out. But when that same dude releases 40 tracks spotted through with moments like these, it might just be a sign that he’s attempting to let us in. —Jonah Bromwich

    Young Thug: "Raw (Might Just)"


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    Podcasts: This Is How We Do It: Deafheaven

    Our podcast series This Is How We Do It features artists talking about the secrets behind their creative process and is presented in partnership with WeTransfer.


    Deafheaven frontman George Clarke is an unconventional singer. To start, he doesn’t sing. His vocals are pure exorcisms. He screams, growls, and scratches away at his throat as if he was descended from another species. And yet the effect of these outbursts is utterly human: People pay to see Clarke enact an extremity of emotion. His onstage demeanor has always struck me as highly performative. Dressed in all-black, Clarke dramatically sinks his face into his hands, waves his arms about like an orchestra conductor, and removes his gloves to lick his fingers. His expressions demolish the archetype of the hyper-masculine metal singer, as he confronts heavy topics that most of us just bury.

    For this conversation, I met with Clarke in Brooklyn the day before Deafheaven played their biggest sold-out headlining show to date, at Manhattan’s Webster Hall. We discussed the art and literature that have inspired his lyrics, his onstage choreography, and what it means to relive your most lowest moments in front of strangers every night. 

    Click the button below to download the podcast interview, plus some exclusive photos and a special episode of Deafheaven bassist Stephen Lee Clark's on-tour podcast series "TalkFoolRadio", which was recorded specifically for inclusion with this installment of This Is How We Do It.


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    Staff Lists: The 50 Best Albums of 2015

    Presenting our list of the Top 50 Albums of the Year. Records released this year and records that made their greatest impact in 2015 were eligible. 


    Dawn Richard

    Blackheart

    Our Dawn Entertainment

    50

    At once vast, inventive, unfashionably earnest, and rapturously liberated, Blackheart is a stunning personal statement from Dawn Richard. Recorded around the time of her grandmother’s death and father’s cancer diagnosis, as well as the demise of her former band Danity Kane, the album is deep and raw, emotionally epic even in its sonic plateaus. Its genre-busting scope is also a form of catharsis, coming from a 31-year-old industry vet who is finally her own boss (not to mention manager, label, and publicist). "Blow" pledges to "Forget this modest shit/ We taking all of it". The beats, co-produced with Noisecastle III, are a revelation, sending R&B spinning into any and all nearby galaxies. Blackheart’s sounds are ambitious not just in breadth and scale (though highlights "Calypso", "Warriors", and "Castles" are staggering by any metric) but in their detail, too. As "Projection" simmers down, ambient afterthoughts swing in and out of earshot in parabolic arcs: Synths undulate, Björk-ish vocals teem, woodwind flutters, shutters flicker. Though it’s part two in a slated trilogy, Blackheart feels like the completion of an artistic vision. —Jazz Monroe

    Dawn Richard: "Phoenix" [ft. Aundrea Fimbres] (via SoundCloud)

    Natalie Prass

    Natalie Prass

    Spacebomb

    49

    What made Natalie Prass’ first album stand out from the seemingly endless pile of Authentic American Roots Music wasn’t how real it felt, but how artificial. Like Elvis in Hawaii or a leather sofa with a plastic slip cover, Prass and her collaborator Matthew E. White’s blend of '70s soul, variety-show country, and music theater is a perpetual mixed signal. Gritty one minute and detached the next, it's confessional in subject matter but brittle, even chilly, in delivery. The façade is moving in part because of the occasional ways it cracks. Take "Christy" ("a name that isn’t too short or too sweet… Christy"), a song Prass says she wrote as a study on the idea of the Other Woman but didn’t register until a few years later, when the song happened to her. All from a former teenage LARPer who once had an epiphany about the majesty of life while dressed as a werewolf and staring at the moon. Sometimes it only takes a whisper to say how you really feel; sometimes it takes a hundred flutes. —Mike Powell

    Natalie Prass: "Bird of Prey"

    Shamir

    Ratchet

    XL

    48

    It'd be fine if all Shamir Bailey had going for him was the virtuosity of his voice—his countertenor is capable of subdued softness and piercing force in equal measure. But it's the place that voice is coming from, and the people it's built to connect with, that brings Ratchet to light as something more than just a hell of a performance.

    Shamir is an outsider with a lot of territories to be outside of. He was raised in a tourist city that he depicts in the deceptively bubbly leadoff cut as more of a temporary destination than a permanent home ("Vegas"), simultaneously living through and numbed to the social connections of party culture ("Make a Scene", "Hot Mess") as he carries a binary-rejecting genderqueer identity. So his only recourse is to stand defiant with a voice that shuns the simplicity of macho posturing for razor-witted shade ("On the Regular"). That perspective is essential to his songs' insight, a wide-scope view that makes the emotions that drive his desire the great equalizer. There's a lot of ambivalence, guilt, and fear in his music, whether he's letting a relationship corrupt him ("Demon") or fighting through the repercussions of it all to try and come out stronger in the end ("Call It Off"). With producer (and former Pitchfork contributor) Nick Sylvester warping versatile post-Jaxx house into immediate pop and R&B, Ratchet is one of the best albums in recent memory that damn near anyone can get psyched up—or introspective—to. That Shamir pulls it off in a way that sounds so joyous and anthemic, well, that's what a virtuoso does. —Nate Patrin

    Shamir: "Call It Off"

    DJ Koze

    DJ-Kicks

    !K7

    47


    While DJ Koze’s playful, low-key attitude has always made him one of dance music’s more peripheral figures, it’s also made him one of its most valuable resources: The studiously unserious guy who makes you wonder what seriousness is for. It’s one of the reasons the DJ mix suits him so well—DJ mixes being a form of collage and collages being a form of joke, a place of distant connections and unusual juxtapositions. Amongst the heavy-lidded hip-hop and effervescent, late-night house on his contribution to the DJ-Kicks series, we get Koze’s idea of a climax: William Shatner doing faux-beatnik spoken word—surprising not because of how much it stands out, but by how cosmically it fits. —Mike Powell

    DJ Koze: "I Haven't Been Everywhere But It's On My List" (via SoundCloud)

    Tobias Jesso Jr.

    Goon

    True Panther

    46

    "Hollywood", the centerpiece of Tobias Jesso Jr.’s debut album Goon, offers a cautionary tale to those enraptured by bright lights, huge billboards, and glistening walks of fame. "Think I’m gonna die in Hollywood," sings Jesso, who spent some of his twenties haplessly trying to become a big time pop songwriter in Los Angeles, dreaming of working with his favorite artist, Adele. It is a somber song about failure, written by a guy coming to terms with his own youthful illusions.

    So it’s more than a little ironic that "Hollywood" caught Adele’s ear earlier this year, causing her to enlist Jesso to write for her record-busting new album. If Jesso’s unlikely redemption story was the plot of an actual Hollywood film, it would be tough not to call bullshit. But at the same time, considering the plainspoken glories of Goon, his breakthrough makes a certain kind of cosmic sense. Jesso’s years as a wannabe songwriter weren’t fruitless after all: along with supplying some character-building roadblocks, they helped him hone a durable, open-ended technique. Throughout the album, he tackles subjects that know no expiration date—desire, heartbreak, betrayal—with arrangements and melodies that Paul McCartney could covet. As if to test the foundations of Goon’s songs, Jesso and his jazzbo live band spent the year showing off dramatically revamped renditions in styles ranging from reggae, to dixieland, to metal, to funk. Indeed, these shameless musings of a lovelorn fool hold up quite well. Some Hollywood stories never get old. —Ryan Dombal

    Tobias Jesso Jr.: "Hollywood"

    Jim O'Rourke

    Simple Songs

    Drag City

    45

    There was something reassuring about Jim O’Rourke turning up in 2015 and using the title Simple Songs as a banner to tack across a set of deeply quixotic music. The album’s often difficult, sometimes purposefully stodgy, with O’Rourke carrying a newly gruff voice that bears a sailor’s bark, sometimes recalling unlikely figures like British bawler Joe Cocker. If it shares a singular trait with the other "pop" albums he’s made for Drag City, it’s in its complete removal from time and space—now, as then, this music exists in a vacuum, the result of a rare vision, moving from weathered to cozy, pushing and pulling horns and strings into places only O’Rourke can fathom. It can seem impenetrable at first, with tracks often deeply compressed under the weight of ideas. It’s in the passing of time that Simple Songs finds its shape, causing it to slowly take on new, largely autumnal-shaded colors. Mostly, the power of allusion is foregrounded—you never get a great sense of who O’Rourke is from this music, with vague trails of humor and sadness and anger left behind, all left to make sense (or not) in the mind of the listener. —Nick Neyland

    Jim O'Rourke: "Friends With Benefits"

    Jazmine Sullivan

    Reality Show

    RCA

    44

    Jazmine Sullivan’s return to music after a four-year silence is inspired by lives both imaginary and tragically personal. In 2011, she abruptly declared on social media that she was leaving the recording industry; the announcement represented a breaking point after quietly suffering in an abusive relationship. Sullivan was later rejuvenated by writing lyrics that empathized with all women, no matter their circumstances: the carefully preserved beauty who trades on her looks in "Mascara", the unemployed single mother turned bank robber in "Silver Lining", the "Stupid Girl" who is objectified and then cast aside like a used toy by men. Delivered with a spirited voice, and a sense of purpose, these songs could be a musical accompaniment to Alice Walker’s "In Love & Trouble". "My flaws don’t look so bad," Sullivan sings on "Masterpiece (Mona Lisa)". "Every part of me is beautiful, and I finally see I’m a work of art." The 27-year-old Philly artist may have outgrown urban pop radio; her third album is the first in her career that hasn’t generated a major hit (although it found some success in urban adult contemporary). But Reality Show is a significant milestone for Sullivan, and for those of us who believe that modern-day R&B, despite its increasing blandness, can still inspire life-affirming art. —Mosi Reeves

    Jazmine Sullivan: "Let It Burn"

    Destroyer

    Poison Season

    Merge / Dead Oceans

    43

    Dan Bejar's stabs at what it means for indie to sound both "pop" and "mature" (scare quotes intended) hit a lavish peak with 2011's Kaputt, but it also stirred his ambivalent reaction to its place in his world. Refinement doesn't always require second-guessing, but when that does happen, you can get something as stirringly anxious as Poison Season. Like Alex Chilton inverted, Bejar sings of dream lovers and trips to Bangkok, only in ways that reveal the disillusionment inside the rock'n'roll fantasy—the fatigue of an alt-pop hero who strives to sidestep the limelight. And in the process, Destroyer snatches irony from the grip of cheap comedy and resettles it in chilly melancholy.

    The bookend songs take the thought of falling in love with Times Square or a radio station, scrub it clean of the scuzzy romance of '70s NYC singer-songwriter myth, and reveal it to be a case of corporate Stockholm syndrome. Big cities are boundaries to escape (the John Carpenter-alluding "The River") or speculation-damaged husks of their former selves ("Oh, it sucks when there's nothing but gold in those hills," from "Girl in a Sling"). And the haunting moments out of vanished-past arrangements—Nelson Riddle strings and soured Chicago horns—are the compellingly bitter flourishes to an album where nostalgia feels less like an escape than a reminder that the ways things go to shit simply shift with the tides. Even the Roxy/Springsteen charge-ahead wallop of "Dream Lover" feels like a deliberately hollow victory, the closest he gets to fun being "someone's idea" of it. But sometimes, intangible ennui is a great way to connect. —Nate Patrin

    Destroyer: "Dream Lover" (via SoundCloud)

    Jenny Hval

    Apocalypse, girl

    Sacred Bones

    42

    In a year when women werefurther solidifying Audre Lorde’s ideas on self-care as a radical act, Jenny Hval’s Apocalypse, girl rang out like a call of dissent. "What are we taking care of?" she sings on "That Battle Is Over", as she questions the messages the media feeds her about personal fulfillment via childbirth, via marriage, via consumption. Above all, Apocalypse, girl is a darkly composed treatise on having a body as a sort of peculiar plight, with Hval wrapping her lingering questions about sexuality and politics in minimalist, slow-jazz instrumentals. A sense of chest-clutching spirituality lingers throughout, with Hval’s voice moving between whispering confession and wailing over organs like she’s experiencing Saint Teresa’s transverberation herself. On Apocalypse, girl the body is a thing to subvert: to find ecstasy in metal binds, to soften canonical cock rock, to embrace self-doubt. To take care of oneself, Hval suggests, is to keep questioning how exactly one is supposed to physically exist in this world. —Hazel Cills

    Jenny Hval: "That Battle Is Over" (via SoundCloud)

    Jeremih

    Late Nights: The Album

    Def Jam

    41

    The biggest difference between the Late Nights With Jeremih mixtape and Late Nights: The Album—the R&B star’s long-delayed, exquistely executed third record—is space. The mixtape was an exercise in how much Jeremih could wring from an ever-shifting background of luxurious-sounding beats and an impressive Rolodex of features (the answer: a lot). The album sounds like the result of three years of a continuous stripping away, to the point where the appearance of 2014’s (excellent!) single "Don’t Tell ’Em" is jarring, perhaps indicative of another direction Jeremih thought about going. Every song finds Jeremih exploring how much room he can chisel between the air in the beats. Label drama, tonal shifts—none of this matters in the rarefied air Jeremih’s breathing. Whether it’s the potential wedding jam "Oui", the wheezing drone of "Royalty", or closer "Paradise", which works an orchestral fake-out before giving way to a finger-picked groove, Late Nights launches every sound, every syllable, every beat, every verse into a heightened reality where alcohol doesn’t lead to hangovers, drugs are purely a pleasurable experience, and sex is without regrets. —Matthew Ramirez

    Jeremih: "Oui"

    Jlin

    Dark Energy

    Planet Mu

    40

    If there were ever a place to get lost inside yourself, it’s Gary, Ind. I’ve only stopped there to get gas, but I’ve probably driven through it 100 times: The factory stank is oppressive enough to make you roll up the windows. It’s been hemorrhaging residents and funds for decades; in 2013, Gary’s redevelopment director wagered 6,500 of the 7,000 city-owned properties were abandoned. And that’s where Jlin, the woman responsible for the year’s most haunting footwork album, lives.

    "I can’t create from a happy place. It feels pointless," Jlin said of Dark Energy. From the start—"Black Ballet"’s doomy strings and operatic wails, churning in vicious spin-cycle—this is music that evokes unnamed, encroaching panic above all else. "Guantanamo" loops a small girl’s voice: "Leave me alone, leave me alone." Often the percussive stabs sound like sharp little sighs. Footwork as a form has always been in direct conversation with the body, even its name addresses the music’s physical effect. But Dark Energy feels more interested in exploring the psyche—a portrait of the dark corners of the human spirit in a ghost town of steel and smoke. —Meaghan Garvey

    Jlin: "Erotic Heat" (via SoundCloud)

    Holly Herndon

    Platform

    4AD / Rvng Intl.

    39

    Holly Herndon’s Platform was named for the work of design strategist Benedict Singleton, and it’s a title that packs a lot in: the geometric language and corporate obfuscation of media-tech talk, a space for boosting fellow artists’ work (which, it’s worth noting, Herndon does; on Platform she curates the work of dozens of others), the sense of something elevated. Indeed, each track on Platform bursts with more ideas and theories and gorgeous musique concrète scrambling than many artists manage on entire albums, and proves Herndon’s whirlwind imagination as a composer. The through-line, though, is an argument for the undervalued artistic utility of the voice.

    Herndon goes beyond the standard voice-as-instrument tropes, the pitch-shifting and snippetizing that are pro forma for art-pop these days—though she certainly excels at these, such as on "Chorus", which comes off as a cappella performed to the beat of a crumbling tectonic plate. Herndon’s interest, rather, lies in the human element, and how it can be exploited. Sometimes it’s playful: the voiceover-perfect advertising timbre of "Locker Leak", which pulps Philip Glass, Greek yogurt, social media jargon, and contextless taglines to dizzying effect. Elsewhere it’s disarming; the surveillance agent of "Home" evokes EMA’s "Neuromancer" ("I know that you know me better than I know me") but has less to say about Technology These Days than about loneliness, and desire, and how closeness never quite guarantees connection.

    Perhaps the most misunderstood track on Platform is "Lonely at the Top", which ruthlessly exploits the disembodied close-mic’d intimacy and swaddling femininity of ASMR. It’s as close to a shortcut to immersion as audio’s got, and Herndon and vocalist Claire Tolan use it to deposit the listener, quite literally forcibly, into the megalomaniacal and quite possibly sexual fantasy of an executive weaned on Tolan’s just-world-hypothesis coo: "All of your achievements just seem like your natural right." The effect is rather like slipping into a warm bath, then realizing it is poison and under your skin. —Katherine St. Asaph

    Holly Herndon: "Chorus" (via Bandcamp)

    Arca

    Mutant

    Mute

    38

    Arca’s 2014 masterpiece Xen was a dense, gnomic self-portrait of producer Alejandro Ghersi as a cryptically erotic extraterrestrial, and many of the obsessive fans that came up in its wake were still untangling its plentiful knots when he dropped Mutant just over a year later. Of the two records, Mutant is less fraught, and more direct. Ghersi’s insistence on avoiding straightforward, repetitive beats makes it hardly more danceable than its predecessor, but the album frequently offers meaningful nods to less thoroughly deconstructed forms of electronic music on tracks like "Alive" and "Snakes" that seem to have sizeable chunks of jungle and breakbeat hardcore in its heavily altered genetic code. Arca’s work is best appreciated when you take your attention away from the intricately wrought details and let it just wash over you. The sensation this time around is warmer and tinged with uncomplicated hedonism, the sound of Arca’s alien alter ego getting past its issues and going out clubbing. —Miles Raymer

    Arca: "Vanity" (via SoundCloud)

    Empress Of

    Me

    Terrible

    37

    “Should I be afraid?” Lorely Rodriguez asks in the opening seconds of Me, her debut LP under the Empress Of moniker. She sounds hesitant, but Rodriguez has little reason to be—over Me's 10 tracks, she makes a strong case for herself as one of the most confident, skilled pop artists of the year. The delicate, '80s-nodding Systems EP from 2013 laid the groundwork for Rodriguez's technical prowess, but Me presents the Empress Of project at its boldest: Rodriguez's voice is front and center, and the melodies that anchor it are contained in airtight, dancefloor-ready synths. It's unsurprising that Rodriguez wrote and recorded the entire album herself during an isolated five-week stay in Mexico, pressure-cooking all of her ideas into existence.

    Rodriguez is adept at negotiating her status in the world through song, whether it be scrutinizing privilege or vilifying cat-callers. She just as easily taps into the emotions around spiky relationships, too: "Got to get high to get by without you," goes the chorus of "To Get By", a depressing sentiment tempered by the song's giddy electro pulse. As its title suggests, Me is a reflective debut, but it's far from self-obsessed; in the middle of fitful pop gem "Need Myself", she lasers in: "I think I'm the one I need." Rodriguez is sharing a secret, telling listeners that loving yourself—no matter how impossible it may seem—is always within reach. —Eric Torres

    Empress Of: "How Do You Do It"

    Janet Jackson

    Unbreakable

    BMG / Rhythm Nation

    36

    Janet Jackson's Unbreakable marks a return to form but, like her best records, it's also a gentle expansion of that form. Jackson, and her longtime collaborators, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, bend their flexible R&B so that it absorbs a wide range of aesthetics, from DJ Mustard’s space-age electro, to Joni Mitchell’s acoustic contemplation, to a kind of blurred country soul. It is a record about intimacy and relationships—personal, political, metaphysical. Even Jackson’s single concession to EDM, "Shoulda Known Better", flows and recedes with the drift of a magnetic field as she sings reflexively against the shimmer. Throughout the album, the bass tones are either subtracted or located exclusively in the drums, giving these songs the unstable gravity of a feather. It’s a shaky weightlessness that mirrors the vulnerability and wisdom of Jackson’s own voice. —Brad Nelson

    Janet Jackson: "No Sleeep" (via SoundCloud)

    Neon Indian

    VEGA INTL. Night School

    Transgressive / Mom & Pop

    35

    VEGA INTL. Night School has one golden rule it requires of listeners: get dancing. It’s an easy request to make, considering that Palomo has pushed his solo act to its most enjoyable, accessible peak. Over an hour of catchy electro-dance tracks, Palomo draws on all the style, energy, and excess of the '80s for a set of glitchy, sample-happy romps. Many songs here openly call back to his past solo work as VEGA, coming across as an extended DJ set best suited for gleaming discotheques where clubgoers are dressed in garish get-ups, everyone’s eyes are a little glazed over, and last call never, ever comes. Palomo stretches his production dexterity into other genres with VEGA INTL., too, threading songs like "Annie" with dubby reggae and “The Glitzy Hive" with bright-eyed disco. There's an extended techno breakdown ("Techno Clique"), an ode to an '80s porn mag ("Dear Skorpio Magazine"), and a sultry murder mystery ("Baby's Eyes"). It's a lot to take in, but VEGA INTL. Night School is one of the most rewarding trips into lurid '80s nostalgia in a year filled with them. —Eric Torres

    Neon Indian: "Slumlord" (via SoundCloud)

    Carly Rae Jepsen

    E•MO•TION

    Interscope / School Boy

    34

    "Pop music is a challenge." No one knows this better than Carly Rae Jepsen, who stumbled into one of the decade's most ubiquitous songs and then had to stumble out from under it. ("I, personally, am sick of hearing myself on the radio," she recalls saying around the time the dust had settled.) Jepsen spent two years convincing her label to let her write her own songs, finding the right collaborators, and even appearing in a Broadway musical for a change of pace. She came out the other side with E•MO•TION, an album that highlighted her gifts, captured the hearts of a newly dedicated fanbase, and went criminally overlooked commercially.

    The album's chart performance is a shame, because E•MO•TION deserves more than a cult following. Jepsen is a songwriter capable of wringing exceptional things from standard pop forms, and she sells it so well that you might not even notice its genius until you really listen. She has a way with odd turns of phrase ("Who gave you eyes like that/ Said you could keep them?" or "Warm blood feels good"), she can frame simple ideas in beautiful ways ("When I'm close to you/ We blend into my favorite color"), and she can bend clichés to her will and make them feel vital and new again ("Run Away With Me"). And that doesn't even cover half the songs on the record.

    Every song on E•MO•TION takes a different feeling and makes it seem like the most important thing in the world. The album is always on the cusp of something—of falling in love, of heartbreak, or even, in the most Carly Rae Jepsen of all feelings, of just finally realizing that you might kinda like someone. An artistic triumph if not a commercial one, this record proves Jepsen's point: Pop music is a challenge. But on E•MO•TION, at least for an hour, it sounds totally effortless. —Andrew Ryce

    Carly Rae Jepsen: "Run Away With Me"

    Archy Marshall

    A New Place 2 Drown

    XL / True Panther

    33

    Archy Marshall’s A New Place 2 Drown feels like a record found underneath a chair in a pub’s dark corner, down there with blackened coins and decades-old cigarette butts. The music gurgles like something coughed up from a manhole, a supremely atmospheric mix of beat styles ranging from '90s rap to early '00s grime. The Londoner Marshall, best known for his King Krule project, vocalizes in a space that triangulates between singing, rapping, and heavily intoxicated slurring. When he delivers lines like "Even though you fucked him I don’t really give a shit" and "When it rains it fucking pours/ Sky opens its mouth and spits to the floor," he hints at a grim and broken world, one where you expect the worst and usually get it. —Mark Richardson

    Archy Marshall: "Arise Dear Brother"

    Dr. Dre

    Compton

    Interscope / Aftermath

    32

    After a gestation so lengthy it threatened to replace the Beach Boys’ SMiLE as most tragic victim of its auteur’s unassailable perfectionism, it turns out Dr. Dre’s fabled third album Detox had to die in order for the good doctor to serve his hungry base with fresh prescription. Using the occasion of the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton as both muse and news peg, Dre set about the seemingly insurmountable task of bridging three generations of California gangster rap on a record both of-the-moment and observant of the history that made all of it possible. From the ashes of Detox rose Compton, a self-mythologizing swan song that unfurls the story of the man and his city in pristine, cinematic sound.

    Like 2001, which painted Dre as mentor and studio maven extraordinaire, Compton deftly recasts its creator’s lengthy waits between albums as a mogul’s never-ending quest for capital. That it succeeds, while uniting Cali rap talent from the '80s (Ice Cube), '90s (Snoop, Above the Law’s Cold 187um), '00s (The Game), and today (Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak), speaks to the enduring legacy of Dre as one of hip-hop’s great business and creative minds. That Compton slaps from end to end while sounding like little else than itself? That’s why you wait on genius. —Craig Jenkins

    Dr. Dre: "Genocide" [ft. Kendrick Lamar, Marsha Ambrosius, and Candice Pillay]

    Kelela

    Hallucinogen EP

    Warp / Cherry Coffee

    31

    When L.A. artist Kelela announced her Hallucinogen EP, she said of its themes: "It speaks to the narcotic that is loving someone. It makes you exhilarated, it makes you feel drained, it’s in your body and it affects you so completely." But if love is the drug here, Kelela's not an addict jonesing for a fix, she's a soothsayer on a vision quest. The record's six tracks—ranging from glossy R&B to freestyling dance-pop to minimal trip-hop—each find her cool, smoky voice illustrating one illusory exchange after another. She doesn't impart the visions themselves, but rather interprets how they manifest before her. We see desire as imagined glances across a room, sex as a rush of chemicals and phantom gestures, heartbreak as a silhouette lost to a crowded dancefloor, regret as calls and letters left unanswered.

    Kelela's way with rich imagery made Hallucinogen deep as the burgundies and purples in its artwork, but her natural charisma is why it felt so magnetic in the first place. Hers isn't just a voice you want to hear, it's one you want to hear from. Flanked by the likes of Arca, Kingdom, and DJ Dahi on production, Kelela gives every outré beat a center of gravity, every reimagined trope a touch of singularity. She's come a long way since Cut 4 Me in 2013. This year solidified the hunch that Kelela wouldn't—no, couldn't—stay secondary to her big name collaborators. —Patric Fallon

    Kelela : "Rewind" (via SoundCloud)

    Deerhunter

    Fading Frontier

    4AD

    30

    Bradford Cox has called himself a terrorist, received oral sex from a stranger while singing, demanded the need for more ugly people in music, and claimed that as a homosexual, his only job is to sodomize mediocrity. Gentle Ben he is not, and when we last heard Deerhunter on 2013’s Monomania, they’d acquired an aggressiveness that reflected Cox’s antagonism toward social complacency.

    Then, Cox was seriously injured after being hit by a car in late 2014. The incident gave him some perspective, and presaged Deerhunter’s return to a softer, psychedelic, unabashedly gorgeous sound. Call it the cosmic Americana: Fading Frontier’s influences are hook-heavy, radio-friendly rock acts like Tom Petty and R.E.M., as refracted through the prism of Deerhunter’s weirdness. It sounds like light emitting from the stars, framing Cox’s preoccupation with mortality—a recurring theme for the band, but now contextualized by a literal bodily threat. He worries about going to the old folks’ home, and asks how to conquer the the fear that consumes his day-to-day. "I’ve spent all of my time chasing the fading frontier," he sings, afraid of giving up after coming so far. On that song, he chants "I’m living my life" over and over, like a man hypnotized into a routine.

    But all that heightened sensitivity doesn’t mean Deerhunter’s lost its nerve. "Snakeskin" is one of the friskiest songs they’ve ever written; its first lines, "I was born already nailed to the cross/ I was born with a feeling I was lost," could open one of Faulkner’s Southern gothics. They still sound like Deerhunter, basically—older, and a little worse for the wear, but on their feet. They feel the black shroud at all moments, but they’re finding a way to live. That’s something to be monomaniacal about. —Jeremy Gordon

    Deerhunter: "Snakeskin"

    Rae Sremmurd

    SremmLife

    Interscope / Ear Drummer

    29

    Amidst a year of protests across American cities and college campuses, you may have noticed the unexpected persistence of a little song called "Swag Surfin’". Logic would dictate that the lead single from Fast Life Yungstaz’ only album, 2009’s Jamboree, should not have made it this far: history hasn’t been especially kind to the swag-rap era, and F.L.Y. almost immediately faded into obscurity, jewel-toned polos and all. Yet there was the triumphant black student body of the University of Missouri, swag-surfing en masse to celebrate successful protests against campus racism. A silly song, maybe, but one that brought light!

    It’s too soon to say for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar fate befell the brothers Sremm, who dropped the year’s most exuberant, hit-heavy rap album in the first week of January so that everyone else could spend the rest of the year geting esoteric and emo. The duo’s sound is darker than F.L.Y.’s, but they share a distinct "T-T-T-TOTALLY DUDE" ethos: a pious devotion to partying, dumb jokes, casual (protected!) sex, and everything else great about being a young adult with newfound disposable income. SremmLife was a burst of minimalist stadium-trap, ecstatic Spring Breakers-core EDM, and giddy strip club joints with secret Jeremih bridges. It single-handedly sustained Mike WiLL Made-It’s relevance and made grumpy dad Kanye smile. It was the album everyone in Atlanta was too depressed or sedated to make. Music like this renders the concept of the "novelty song" meaningless: its weightlessness is its purpose. —Meaghan Garvey

    Rae Sremmurd: "No Type" (via SoundCloud)

    Beach House

    Depression Cherry

    Bella Union / Mistletone / Sub Pop

    28

    Beach House’s fifth collection, Depression Cherry, often sounds like nothing they’ve done before. There’s hazed-out synth noise and rattling electronic drums backing gently warped harmonies, a fragile ballad featuring an eight-person community college choir, distorted guitar psychedelics, percussion that comes off like a woodpecker or a clock attacking a metronome. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally take bits that would normally function as quick introductory snippets and let them overflow and guide entire compositions: shots of noise that, in the past, might float somberly in the background now swallow an entire song. Conversely, they're not afraid to loop Legrand's crystalline vocals or bury them in fuzz.

    The record feels intimate: two people outside of their comfort zone with just four hands to piece it all together. It hearkens to their first couple of pre-Sub Pop records, but with the skills they picked up and displayed on career pinnacles, Teen Dream and Bloom. Even with the return of Chris Coady as co-producer, it’s not as "perfect" as those albums, but the scars make it all the more beautiful. —Brandon Stosuy

    Beach House: "Sparks"

    Sleater-Kinney

    No Cities to Love

    Sub Pop

    27

    Sleater-Kinney returned with a song about exhuming your idols, and their comeback album hit like a fist through a grave. The reformed Portland trio were hungry, and they knew that we had been starved of a successor. Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss rekindled their unique language and taunted us with it, crafting jut-jawed cadences that were often impossible to sing along to. They tainted their eighth record's wall-to-wall firebrand choruses with their signature drop-tuning, which hardened their agitated declarations against softening to easy slogans. It couldn't have been anyone else, but it didn't sound like anything they had made before. Even now, 11 months after its release, it still sounds jarring, corroded and full of fight.

    No Cities to Love finds Sleater-Kinney pile-driving through corrupt power and fear, through the enablers of mediocrity. It's a timeless record about a marginalized struggle—a song like "Fangless", about the impotence of patriarchy, will never go out of style—though its nuanced take on liberation is novel. Sleater-Kinney may fight back and celebrate togetherness, but they also illuminate the ongoing battles inherent in sustaining pleasure: the way love can become "a ritual of emptiness," the loneliness of "the shout of a room." No Cities' best line was its simplest. It comes at the end of gruff Go-Go's romp "A New Wave", when Brownstein moans, "I can be, I can be, I can be-e-e." That swaggering openness to unlimited possibility was what made Sleater-Kinney's comeback so potent. They returned to see what they would become, rather than to rehash what they had been. —Laura Snapes

    Sleater-Kinney: "Bury Our Friends" (via SoundCloud)

    Deafheaven

    New Bermuda

    Anti-

    26

    New Bermuda’s five songs are howled tales of sickness and health, alternating stories of lost ambition with frantic fever dreams. The gut-wrenching noise that spills forth from lead singer's George Clarke’s throat transcends its tone of shrieking menace, his lines filled with unsettlingly beautiful imagery: man’s passion being carried off "by some lonely driver in a line of fluorescent light," humanity’s "ugliness stretching toward the chandelier." But Deafheaven don't just rattle off romanticist tropes, and the narrative power of New Bermuda has a strength that’s independent of its lyrics. They illustrate and expound upon the words with huge shifts in dynamic range, from the sublime crescendoes at the heart of "Luna" or cross-genre experiments like the post-rock meeting gritty thrash on "Baby Blue". The result is a crushing, concise, and unexpectedly celebratory journey, the sweet, molten earth to Sunbather’s ghostly air. —Zoe Camp

    Deafheaven: "Brought to the Water" (via SoundCloud)

    Earl Sweatshirt

    I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside

    Columbia / Tan Cressida

    25

    On "Grief", the lead single from I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, Earl Sweatshirt proudly confesses, "I ain't been outside in a minute/ I been living what I wrote." That sentiment does not apply to his previous work: his violent and fantastical debut mixtape EARL, and 2013's Doris, a playground of wordplay with a wide range of beats. It was a foreshadowing for the album that was to come, one that finds Earl more focused than he's ever been as a lyricist, songwriter, and producer.

    In his own words, Earl is "grown." For him, being an adult means he takes responsibility for his actions ("Trying to pay my momma rent, figured that's just what I owe her"), guards himself from outsiders ("I only trust these bitches 'bout as far as I can throw 'em"), and maintains a thorough work ethic ("My days numbered/ I'm focused heavy on making the most of 'em"). In addition to what he's saying, Earl's also condensed how he's saying it. He still has the ability to spin dizzying internal and end rhymes, but instead chooses to emphasize diction, clarity, and pacing to truly emphasize the gravity of his words. I Don't Like Shit captures a particular moment and specific murky, grated sound, in which it revels for only about 30 minutes. I Don't Like Shit is a just brief foray into Earl's psyche, but it might be as long as he can handle someone else in his head. —Matthew Strauss

    Earl Sweatshirt: "Grief"

    Thundercat

    The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam

    Brainfeeder

    24

    Death is the scariest, most certain thing we’ll all ever face. As sure as you’re reading this, you will die, and you can only hope for a peaceful transition to the other side. Thundercat has been preoccupied with the topic for the past few years: 2013’s Apocalypse was shaded by the death of his friend and collaborator, Austin Peralta, and his work on Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! helped convey what the spirit might endure as the body passes away.

    But while FlyLo used frenetic psych-jazz to conceptualize death, Thundercat takes a reflective stance on The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam, using improvised funk and R&B to mourn. On "Hard Times", Thundercat channels what the soul must feel when death takes hold. By the last song, "Where the Giants Roam", he’s at peace with the afterlife, even if the journey is unclear: "Nothing in this world I know/ Can you tell me who you are?" The Beyond continued where You’re Dead! left off, when the pain of dying fades and the darkness slowly sets in.

    Thundercat’s EP helped cement a great year for Lotus’ Brainfeeder label. Along with You’re Dead!, the bassist appeared frequently on Kamasi Washington’s The Epic and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, two landmark albums that celebrated blackness and kept jazz at the forefront. Thundercat was especially brave on The Beyond, walking through a world many of us don’t want to acknowledge and making it sing. —Marcus J. Moore

    Thundercat: "Them Changes" (via SoundCloud)

    Kurt Vile

    b’lieve i’m goin down

    Matador

    23

    On his sixth album, our journey to the center of the Kurt Vile is lubricated by production that's as warm and smooth as a slug of whiskey. Recorded mostly at night, partly in the desert, and buttressed by banjo and piano, it's a quiet, hold-you-close record that goes easy on the effects, and values presence above all else. Incongruously, it's also fueled by jokes. Vile has always been sly, but here, as often as not, he's a real knee-slapper, whether it's his headache "like a shop vac coughin' dust bunnies" or a lyrical cameo from the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man—and that in the album’s emotional center of gravity, too: "That's Life, tho (almost hate to say)", a bittersweet bout of philosophizing that doubles as a eulogy. His acid sense of humor lies just beneath the surface of his idiosyncratic tone—a drawl that shifts between Leonard Cohen and Joey Ramone and Bob Dylan and Black Francis—and it surfaces unexpectedly in his odd stresses and enjambments, his quixotic determination to squeeze any thought into the space of a bar, to hell with the rhythmic feet.

    "Hopefully I just get a little more fine-tuned and a little more real and vulnerable all the time," Vile told the A.V. Club, trying to pinpoint what was different with this album. Which brings us to "Wild Imagination" and one of the best lines on the whole record: "I'm afraid that I am feeling much too many feelings simultaneously, at such a rapid clip." It's the game face he wears when feeling those feelings, and staring down that fear, that makes b'lieve i'm goin down such a delight. —Philip Sherburne

    Kurt Vile: "That's Life, tho (almost hate to say)"

    Panda Bear

    Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

    Domino

    22

    Years ago, a friend and I half-jokingly came up with a genre to describe how Noah Lennox always sounded like he was singing while stuck down a very deep well: cavewave. In 2015, it doesn’t seem like Lennox ever emerged from the underground. His music as Panda Bear is hallucinatory and slippery, always on the verge of dissolving into shadow while still managing to keep a firm foot on the ground. He doesn’t literally come face-to-face with Death on Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, but the album hides his increasingly adult concerns—fatherhood, middle age, his dog—within all that melodic weirdness. On its most haunting track, "Tropic of Cancer", he sings about watching his father submit to brain cancer, a harp looping against what sounds like wind blowing through the trees. Lennox, whose koan-like observations have never suffered from obfuscation, beautifully sums up how the death of a close one sections off a life we knew: "You can’t come back to it."

    The shortest song on the album takes its name from Shadow of the Colossus, a video game about a young man who navigates a mysterious land in search of nameless monsters. The protagonist’s name is Wander, fittingly, because you’ll walk and walk and walk, exploring your surroundings with no destination in sight. It’s how I see Lennox: an explorer moving through the fog, bumping into life’s overwhelming realities and finding a way to meet the challenge. —Jeremy Gordon

    Panda Bear: "Boys Latin"

    Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment

    Surf

    self-released

    21

    The most important song on Surf, the blindingly optimistic album that Chicago icon Chance the Rapper released this year with his crew instead of a proper solo follow up to Acid Rap, is called "Wanna Be Cool". That’s because the chorus is "I don’t wanna be cool," repeated joyously and relentlessly, and the rest of Surf drives this point home with the zeal of an anti-drug a cappella group invading your fifth-grade lunchroom.

    Consider: Chance made this album with a guy who goes by the name "Donnie Trumpet," which wouldn’t even be a cool sobriquet among marching-band geeks. He invited goofballs like Big Sean to do fake-Lyricist Lounge raps on it ("My older bro was on the honor roll/ And the other one was always up in front of the honor, so/ I’m in the middle like the lining of divide signs") and got current-day Busta Rhymes to sound happy again (on "Slip Slide"). He snagged the funniest verse King Louie spit all year ("If your bitch from Paris, then Paris is terrible") and put it on a pop song that sounds like a circa-'99 Sugar Ray single. The album makes your cheeks hurt; it feels like doing the chicken dance at your cousin’s wedding.

    This energy is Chance the Rapper’s gift to the universe, the superpower he brings to rap. "Don’t you look up to me...if you learn one thing today," he chides tenderly. The album has the aura of the kind of big brother you fantasize about even if you have a big brother: wise, funny, concerned, engaged, no-bullshit, authoritative but equal. And it is so committed and nuanced, even with all of this sunshine, that it reminds you that joy is an emotion with millions of gradations, a feeling you can soak in, nurse, and cultivate the same way you might do with melancholy. —Jayson Greene

    Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment: "Sunday Candy" (via SoundCloud)

    Floating Points

    Elaenia

    Luaka Bop / Pluto

    20

    Sam Shepherd, the nexus of Floating Points, has always produced tracks that just skirt the fringes of the dancefloor and its mercurial trends. Early singles like "Love Me Like That" and "Vacuum Boogie" playfully bounced between rubbery disco and boogie at a time when his fellow countrymen were making warehouse-shaking dubstep. Even when he embraced bass music, it was garlanded with vintage soul voices and sumptuous strings.

    So it’s not unexpected that seven years into his career, he’s eschewed easy categorization on his debut album, Elaenia. Helixed into Elaenia’s DNA is everything from primitive circuitry pulses to Alice Coltrane’s divine songs, from Herbie Hancock’s ARP thrusts to late ’60s soul. The album moves between solo exploratory electronics to full-blown ensembles taking flight and makes it all sound of a piece. It’s that rare album that speaks to the current year yet could have emanated from 40 years prior. Outside of time, Floating Points’s closest peers could also be found well beyond the electronic idiom: His spiritually questing music has more in common with jazz players like Kamasi Washington, Joshua Abrams, and Gregory Porter than what turns up at your local club’s DJ sets. In taking a divergent path, Floating Points soared skyward. —Andy Beta

    Floating Points: "Peroration Six" (via SoundCloud)

    Future

    Dirty Sprite 2

    Epic / Free Bandz

    19

    Fingering the bleakest moment on Future's DS2 is more of a barstool debate than a critical one, but I'll take it up anyway and point to the interlude on "Kno the Meaning", deep into the record's latter half. Future stops rapping, which he's only half-doing at this point anyway, and outlines in loopy spoken word what happened after his DJ, Esco, was arrested in Dubai: "People didn't even understand that my hard drives that I recorded all my music for two years straight was on this…was on this one hard drive that Esco had and he was locked up with it so I had to record new music. That's when I did Beast Mode." It's as if he's so dejected by this loss (of music—no mention of the 56 nights Esco spent in prison) that he couldn't pull together a cohesive verse and just had to talk out his heartbreak. Is this what it sounds like when Future goes to therapy?

    If not straight lamenting, the rest of DS2 feels equally bummed out. Future's best songs have always been his heaviest, and here he wastes no time swatting at sunshine. DS2 is 18 songs with just one feature (Drake). The rest is Future alone at his rawest, song after song. The sound of his voice here is tinged sour, scratchy like he never stops smoking and/or just woke up. But his rapping is nimble and dreamy, partially because he never seems to fully pronounce anything, even when he hits double time. It’s a strange effect. And it’s a strange record. The production is mostly slow and sad, peppered with alarms, weezy keyboards, hi-hats at the tempo of anxious toe-tapping. On the verse before the interlude on "Kno the Meaning", Future says the best thing he ever did was fall out of love. He says it like it’s nothing. What kind of darkness is this guy experiencing? On "Rotation", he outlines some of the more money/more problems aspects of his life as a rich person. Sure, shortly after he says with a glint of pride, "Ask me how it feels to be a millionaire." But notice he doesn’t answer the question. —Matthew Schnipper

    Future: "I Serve the Base"

    Julia Holter

    Have You In My Wilderness

    Domino

    18

    If Holter’s past work—capital A art-pop, by turns inscrutable and bewitching, or both at once—has resembled a series of deeply considered treatises on the past, on Have You in My Wilderness she sinks more fully into the character (and characters) of her songs, their desires and fears too urgently present to tolerate any overarching, sense-making narrative. While the resulting shapes are broadly familiar, they’re rendered alien and strange by the sheer closeness of details, like placing your eyes almost against the skin of a lover.

    Anything can happen in these songs. A boot-knocking country shuffle can suddenly become submerged on a reef of moaning strings, or a gossamer-winged pop song drowned in a multi-tracked rainshower of a thousand little Julia Holters, because she has the commitment to follow through exactingly on each of her smallest and most fragmented impulses, and then to forge them into songs like skyscrapers, their greatness the exact sum of their glittering parts.

    Like past alchemists Robert Wyatt or Jane Siberry, Holter combines meticulousness and lightheadedness, a studied discipline with a wide-eyed bewilderment. She’s like a scrupulous technician tasked with producing moments of seemingly unselfconscious immediacy. "Show me now/ Show me your second face," she asks on "Night Song", but it’s the album itself that offers a parade of second faces, ornately sculpted masks as windows to the soul. —Tim Finney

    Julia Holter: "Sea Calls Me Home"

    Drake

    If You're Reading This It's Too Late

    Cash Money

    17

    Drake undertook a hard-left personal rebranding in 2015, a process he kicked off in early February with his fourth full-length, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Every action flowed from his warning shots on "No Tellin’": "Please do not speak to me like I’m that Drake from four years ago/ I’m at a higher place." If everyone called him soft, the muscles and abs he put on constant display on Instagram said otherwise. The toughness of the album’s opening bars pushed back against accusations that he was just a singer ("When I pull up on a nigga/ Tell that nigga back back/ I’m too good with these words/ Watch a nigga backtrack"). Too calculating? Remember, this million-selling album was scheduled to drop for free.

    Above all, Drake dripped sauce and self-confidence, so much that even the ghostwriting allegations—audio included—from his beef with Meek Mill couldn’t slow him down. His barbed words even clashed with upper management on "No Tellin’": "Envelopes coming in the mail…hoping for a check again, ain’t no tellin'." The title of the album was widely interpreted as a contract-releasing taunt to Cash Money boss Birdman, but it could have summed up his year: On If You’re Reading This, the goal is forward motion, and allowing the past to remain rather than endlessly mining previous sorrows. With each step of progress through white society, black people are told not to ask for what they’re owed; not to flaunt confidence, or reach boldly for what brings joy. If You’re Reading This was not an album for reserved satisfaction. Instead, the opener clearly set out its goals: "If I die I’m a motherfucking legend." —David Turner

    Drake: "Know Yourself"

    FKA twigs

    M3LL155X

    Young Turks

    16

    FKA twigs always felt fully formed, but with M3LL155X, her third EP and first release since LP1, Tahliah Barnett grew into her dualities: calmly commanding, fierce yet tender, by turns threatening and submissive. On "Figure 8", she’s an angel whose "back wings give the hardest slap that you’ve ever seen." "Glass & Patron"’s narrator feigns insecurity–"Am I dancing sexy yet?"–before twigs flips the script, singing as a menacing photographer over a dystopic dance-studio beat. Even when vulnerable, on the exquisite "In Time", she radiates wisdom. Lyrically, the song maps love’s extremities—heightened states of yearning, idealism, and resentment—and climaxes in a romantic bust-up. But the vocal, navigating a precarious beat, surveys the wreckage from a safe space. The narrator suggests that, having dredged their insecurities for verbal ammo, the couple have emerged stronger. The vision is piercing and true, even if delirium never seems far off. —Jazz Monroe

    FKA twigs: "In Time"

    Björk

    Vulnicura

    One Little Indian

    15

    On Vulnicura opener "Stonemilker", Björk phrases an early lyric—"Find our mutual coordinates"—in such a way that it spotlights the phrase "mutual core," the name of a song on 2011’s Biophilia. It’s one of many dredging processes employed on Vulnicura, a shattering breakup album that tempers its literal account of midlife divorce with deconstructions of love, grief, and selfhood. It’s ultimately the melodrama that makes the album click. Witness her soaring demand for "emotional respect" on "Stonemilker"; her contempt of her partner’s "joy peak, humor peak, frustration peak" on "Lionsong"; her extraordinary claim, in "Black Lake", that "I honored my feelings/ You betrayed your own heart/ Corrupted that organ." So raw is that song that she later admitted, "I was really embarrassed ... I can still hardly listen to it." Having renounced its shame, Vulnicura becomes a one-woman rhapsody so radically cathartic it is practically avant-garde. —Jazz Monroe

    Björk: "Lionsong"

    Young Thug

    Barter 6

    Atlantic / 300 Entertainment

    14

    When Young Thug announced that he would be swiping his album title from Lil Wayne's Carter series—a homage that later morphed into a diss—the popular assumption was that he would be following the lead of his primary influence and making Barter 6 a proper crossover release. It turned out to be just a mixtape, hastily compiled in an effort to preempt the impending leak of 100+ songs from a stolen laptop. If anything, Barter 6 has more in common with Wayne's less heralded post-Katrina masterwork Dedication 2—a ferocious display of rapping qua rapping by an artist in his prime with zero concern for the marketplace.

    It's an unexpectedly subtle tape from an artist who is so frequently pegged as a weirdo rapper. Thug's eccentricities are undeniable but they take more nuanced shapes here. He stretches tire screech ad lib into new vocal dimensions and indulges his oft underrated lyrical side through De La Soul-type flits of structure like "Motor running/ Spent them commas/ Now it's thunder." And by the album's second half he all but completely abandons the sort of spastic pressure-and-release flows that defined hits like "Danny Glover", instead hammering away endlessly at the same rhyme patterns in the service of tragedy. He'll frequently lock into a single rigid flow and stay trapped there for several more bars than he needs to, still escalating the intensity by the sheer rising stress in his voice. This tension isn't fully resolved until the album's final seconds when the beat fades to silence and Thug finally gets a chance to clear his throat. —Andrew Nosnitsky

    Young Thug: "Constantly Hating" [ft. Birdman]

    Joanna Newsom

    Divers

    Drag City

    13

    Since her 2004 debut, scribblers like me have been trying to find useful ways to talk about Joanna Newsom’s wildly idiosyncratic, anachronistically baroque brand of music-making; fact is, her work is so novel and unprecedented it’s nearly impossible to effectively contextualize. Divers, her fourth full-length, is a folk record that’s remarkable not for its smallness but its ambition—its vast, unspooling arrangements, its points of unexpected intersection, its newness. Despite all that, Divers never feels over-thought. Instead, it’s marked by moments of tremendous, startling vulnerability. "Anecdotes", the record’s opener, contains what might be the most heartbreaking coda I’ve ever heard sung: "Nor is there cause for grieving, nor is there cause for carrying on", Newsom announces, her voice high, calm. Divers is lousy with these sorts of perfectly drawn endings, like on "Waltz of the 101st Lightborne", in which she gives a startlingly clear-eyed summation of love and its disrepair: "But there was a time/ We were lashed to the prow of a ship you may board, but not steer/ Before ‘You and I’ ceased to mean ‘Now’". Newsom is often praised for her virtuosity—both as a harpist and as a writer of odd, looping melodies—but here, it’s just as often her lyrics that do the undoing. —Amanda Petrusich

    Joanna Newsom: "Sapokanikan"

    Father John Misty

    I Love You, Honeybear

    Bella Union / Sub Pop

    12

    Boredom may be the privilege of people who don’t have to struggle to stay alive, but you can’t blame Josh Tillman for feeling so…blah. Tillman looks at America and sees a hollowed-out middle class, a generation obsessed with their phones, mass culture used by the bourgeoisie to keep people sated and divided. That’s enough to make anyone cynical, regardless of their comforts.

    Bearing witness to his pomp and circumstance as he portrays Father John Misty, the one guy who really knows how it is, can be like arguing with the smartest philosophy major in the freshman dorm: Sure, he gets it, but you still want him to get over it. But what grounds Tillman’s sense of superiority is how he believes in the oldest and corniest solution for all the world’s troubles: each other. I Love You, Honeybear is the story of his courtship of his wife, Emma, and his jesterly antics can’t hide the way he’s taken over from the inside-out by his love for her. "People are boring," he sings, "but you’re something else." Tillman sings about making spontaneous love in the kitchen, smiling as he walks with Emma, rolling around in the dirtied sheets, and wanting to settle down in spite of his doubts about everything. The music is warm, sensuous, and ambitious, a wino singing like Gram Parsons as he’s backed by an orchestra.

    Though his cynicism remains, it’s made secondary to something bigger than himself. "Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity," he asks, "But what I fail to see is what’s that gotta do with you and me?" There are uncomfortable moments—Tillman turns vitriolic when his wife gets hit on at a bar, and he’s downright demeaning about a kind of woman he hates, even after they’ve gone home together. Still, this lingering combativeness feels honest—an admittance that where there’s love, there’s hate. The clarity of his belief in the former makes I Love You, Honeybear believably and compellingly romantic, filled with sentiment as it avoids sentimentality. It’s one grand joke he’s letting you in on, and if it doesn’t tug on your heartstrings or tickle your funny bone, Tillman has a question: "Why the long face, jerkoff?" —Jeremy Gordon

    Father John Misty: "Bored in the USA" (via SoundCloud)

    Oneohtrix Point Never

    Garden of Delete

    Warp

    11

    Being a teenager is complicated. Daniel Lopatin’s ambitious electronic album Garden of Delete focuses on the angsty rock music that soundtracks so many teenage struggles and then splatters it against the wall. In an interview with Vulture, Lopatin said, "I want the kid that works at the mall to like this record," and you really can imagine that kid finding something to latch onto in G.O.D.’s brilliant, teeming universe. G.O.D., which Lopatin has called "a self-portrait", comes off like someone channel surfing at 3 a.m. on a weekend.

    Unlike past OPN outings, the record features a variety of vocals (somber, warped, violent) and shredding guitars amid the hairpin turns and digital age pyrotechnics. It’s Lopatin's heaviest album so far, but also his most fragile. At times, you’ll find yourself wanting to figure out how to dance to its weirdo rhythms. Or you’ll think of a Nine Inch Nails cassette melting in the sun. Mashing together power ballads and warped takes on pop hits with grinding noise, techno, melancholic drone, and blunted hiss, G.O.D. is romantic, frantic, chilly, jubilant, ghostly, and sometimes sad. There are references to troubled kids and kids just saying the dumb and brilliant stuff kids say: "I'm just going to start off by doing some stupid stuff because that’s what I do. It's in me, my blood," one brags in “Mutant Standard". G.O.D. does an incredible job of evoking the gorgeous, thrilling mess we needed to get through to finally enter adulthood, except you can tell it’s been painstakingly pieced together, nothing left to chance.

    Before the record was released, Lopatin offered up a G.O.D. cosmology, one that featured an invented band, Kaoss Edge, and a teenage alien collaborator/troll with bad skin named Ezra. You can go to real blogs and Twitter accounts and other pages run by these entities, and they often interact with Lopatin’s online. Of course, you can safely assume Ezra is part Lopatin—he’s said so himself—but the bigger idea is that we all were at some point. —Brandon Stosuy

    Oneohtrix Point Never: "Ezra" (via SoundCloud)

    Kamasi Washington

    The Epic

    Brainfeeder

    10

    For a minute there Kamasi Washington was The Guy Who Played Saxophone and Created the Jazz Arrangements on the Kendrick Record, but it didn’t take long for his astonishing album The Epic to develop a life of its own. Nothing about its success makes sense: a triple album with almost three hours of music, featuring a 10-piece jazz band, often augmented with a string section and a full choir, released on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint? In an era when we supposedly measure the direction of our consciousness by counting clicks, it didn’t add up. But The Epic turned out to serve a need many people didn’t know they had.

    Here’s one possible explanation: With reissue culture and the vinyl revival in overdrive, people are rediscovering jazz created when the music was a more significant part of the cultural conversation. The work of John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago offered an avant-garde that was formally daring, grounded in the history of American music, and, for many of these musicians, deeply political and connected to the African-American struggle for equality. The Epic taps into this spirit but forgoes the fiery and explosive jazz of the late '60s for the period just after, when jazz, pop-soul, and R&B came together to find common ground after the tumult of the previous decade. Free jazz players incorporated vocals, and song-oriented superstars were thinking about how their art might expand and change the world.

    The Epic has plenty of straightforward jazz and solo trading, but its most striking elements are when genres clash in unpredictable ways—songs that sound like they floated in from a Broadway musical ("Henrietta Our Hero"), impossibly grand massed vocals and strings that could soundtrack the next Flash Gordon reboot ("Askim"), brilliantly textured mood pieces evocative of Miles Davis’ mid-'60s quintet ("Seven Prayers"). It’s a lifetime of creative thought packed into one release, and the grand scope and sweep of the thing was an act of generosity in itself. —Mark Richardson

    Kamasi Washington: "Miss Understanding" (via SoundCloud)

    Courtney Barnett

    Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

    Mom & Pop / Marathon Artists / Milk!

    9

    Courtney Barnett's debut album has the kind of weary worldview usually associated with an artist's later efforts. She scares off expectations by roaring, "Put me on a pedestal and I'll only disappoint you" because she knows she's "just a reflection of what you really wanna see." And who really knows what they want? Not Barnett. Sometimes portrays a young woman struggling with how to be for other people when she's not sure how to be for herself. The 28-year-old Australian barely ventured a viewpoint in her songs without retracting it a line or two later. "What do I know anyhow? … Guess everybody's got their different point of view."

    Sometimes is full of wry epics spun from insignificant seeds, whether house-hunting, buying fruit, or sleepless nights spent staring at the ceiling. In a way, Barnett's tangent-prone songwriting style reinforces her point about reflections: everything is copy and any angle is possible. (Though good luck writing it as well as she can.) Spotting a newspaper story about dredging when you're in an existentially bad mood can lead to morbid contemplations about the point of it all, sure. But from her counter-arguments and shrugs, a subtle, certain songwriter emerges. Barnett tries out a lot of different modes on Sometimes: laconic country-tinged ballads, Nirvana ragers, and Lemonheads-y choogle. She sticks to one voice though. Literally a monotone, but a funny one, where roadkill is a "possum Jackson Pollock". It's a marvel of intensity and feeling that quietly questions where we find value, and its price. —Laura Snapes

    Courtney Barnett: "Pedestrian At Best" (via SoundCloud)

    Miguel

    Wildheart

    RCA / Bystorm

    8

    That moment when an artist throws taste to the wind and the results aren’t self-indulgent, but revelatory: that’s when he’s reached the pinnacle of his skill, earned absolute trust from his audience, and that’s the blissful high Miguel sustains on Wildheart. Three years ago, he signposted his ambitions with a record title like Art Dealer Chic. Now he nails everything he tries, from the chugging guitars of opener "A Beautiful Exit" to the appearance of Lenny Kravitz—hardly a critically rehabilitated guy—on album closer “Face the Sun”. Throughout, he writes about sex with enough candor and playfulness to make everyone else sound like high schoolers bragging about their imagined conquests.

    Everything on Wildheart is a risk, even the tracks that seem conventional. “Waves” could have been awkward leisure-suit funk, the kind of thing that dragged down Giorgio Moroder and Nick Jonas this year. But Miguel is both a beefier vocalist and a more imaginative producer, and “Waves” is one of the album’s highlights. His charisma, a sheer omnivorous force of personality, turns whatever he touches into into jams. "Hollywood Dreams" treads approximately zero new ground, but Miguel tears into California corruption like he’s annexing it all for himself.

    Miguel’s passions are clear—kink, futurism, '70s rock—and singularly his. "The Valley" is set to scattershot percussion and noir clank that would be at home on a Holly Herndon album; its follow-up, "Coffee", balances porn with lyrics so intimate they could only sketch a single specific person. Wildheart’s most autobiographical track, "What’s Normal Anyway", skirts the line separating "disarmingly earnest" and "uncomfortably on the nose", but never comes off as anything other than exactly what Miguel wanted to say, exactly how he wanted to say it. —Katherine St. Asaph

    D'Angelo / The Vanguard

    Black Messiah

    RCA

    7

    As a song called "1000 Deaths" chugs to life on D'Angelo's first album in 14 years, the voice of Black Panther Fred Hampton is heard decrying the "megalomaniac" powers that be who stand in the way of peace for blacks and whites alike. "We've got to fight them," the controversial civil-rights leader concludes, "to make them understand what peace means." At age 21, Hampton was shot and killed in a police raid on a Black Panther base on Chicago's West Side in December, 1969; though the authorities claimed that they were justified in the incident, a subsequent federal investigation found that only one shot was fired by the Panthers, while nearly 100 were let off by the cops. Forty-five years later, and just eight miles south of Hampton's slaying, an unarmed 17-year-old named Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by a single police officer—the latest atrocity involving America's lethal refusal of black being.

    The intractability of this refusal is drawn out within the layers of Black Messiah, through the scarred guitars, the murky vocal harmonies, the grooves that never fully settle. It's a sad testament to an enduring struggle D'Angelo himself describes as a "charade"—though the album's grainy black-and-white cover looks like something from Hampton's heyday, it was actually taken during Brooklyn's Afropunk Festival in 2014. But for all of its somber complexities, Black Messiah still manages to cling to its title's sense of rejuvenation. It's not all hopeless. A self-described optimist, D'Angelo also sings of sex, love, nostalgia, and faith across the record, which breathes with enough analog warmth to convert the staunchest vinyl skeptic. "Another Life", the album's finale, is a tribute to the smoothness of Philly Soul, a style that soundtracked America's burgeoning black middle class in the mid-'70s. The song fantasizes of a forever romance as heavenly piano chords and D'Angelo's pure falsetto slide it into the slow jam canon. And yet, at its core, the track feels like a mirage. It's no coincidence that Black Messiah's most luscious moment is also the one that looks beyond our own world. —Ryan Dombal

    D'Angelo / The Vanguard: "1000 Deaths"

    Sufjan Stevens

    Carrie & Lowell

    Asthmatic Kitty

    6

    We’re only getting better at distracting ourselves from death, which makes sense, because death is terrifying. We get lost in screens, sex, stories, drugs, dreams, work, and music to forget the fact that, one day, the planet will spin without us; if there is noise, then there is not silence. Over the last 15 years, Sufjan Stevens has employed a particular sort of overflowing aesthetic maximalism to stave off that empty feeling. His songs are often marked by melancholy, but then strings, horns, blips, and banjo enter, and we’re swept away, saved from the bottomless pit below. On Carrie & Lowell, though, he forces himself—and his listeners—to face the brink with a stripped sound. The album’s first song is called "Death With Dignity" and its opening lines are delivered in a hush: "Spirit of my silence I can hear you/ But I’m afraid to be near you".

    Carrie is the troubled mother Stevens hardly knew, who died in 2012; Lowell is the loving step-father who to this day helps run Stevens’ independent record label. They seem to represent the entirety of this songwriter’s psyche: the interminable longing for and eventual loss of the woman who gave him life as well as the tremendous gratitude for and admiration of a man to whom he has no blood ties. While Carrie & Lowell is certainly not a party record, it’s not a pity party record either—it never devolves into mere mope for mope’s sake. Even if Stevens is making less noise than usual, these 11 elegies fill up a grand space. In the end, there’s comfort in knowing that this album will outlive us all. —Ryan Dombal

    Sufjan Stevens: "Should Have Known Better"

    Tame Impala

    Currents

    Interscope

    5

    Oh, you were getting used to Kevin Parker as a contemporary guitar hero? Too bad, because he's apparently been listening to a lot of Air and DeBarge, on headphones, in his bedroom, with his axe tucked away in its case. He's gone past the title of 2012's Lonerism to total desolation on Currents, whose every lyric makes the absence of anyone else in his studio evident. Even when he's talking to someone else, it's someone who's not in his life any more. (The chorus of "'Cause I'm a Man" pretends to be defensive bluster, but its context makes it clear that it's an outburst of shame addressed to an empty space.)

    There's still a bit of Parker's elegant guitar here, but he's mostly rerouted his perfectionistic craftsmanship to synthesizer tones and drum programming. If you want the old Tame Impala back, that's not about to happen: "Maybe fake's what I like," he murmurs on "New Person, Same Old Mistakes". The weightless, drifty sounds in the foreground of Currents conceal the jagged edges of lyrics whose core topics are failed romance and emotional paralysis. The album's centerpiece, "Eventually", anticipates the slow, merciful erosion of heartbreak, and Parker sings it as if a perfectly breathy falsetto was the only thing that could cushion the blow of a breakup. —Douglas Wolk

    Tame Impala: "Let It Happen"

    Vince Staples

    Summertime '06

    Def Jam

    4

    Jay Z famously said, "Y’all respect the one who got shot, I respect the shooter." Vince Staples lets you understand both perspectives better than anyone else currently rapping. You sense the powerlessness that leads someone to pull the trigger, their rage at having their story dismissed, the corrosive socioeconomic conditions that end in pine boxes, wilting roses, and another set seeking retribution.

    Summertime '06 chronicles the north Long Beach of nearly a decade ago, the city where the skinny carry strong heat, where the bandanas are brown "like the dope daddy shooting in the kitchen." The ex-shooter eulogizes the corpses, the snitches, and those condemned in the penitentiary—tracing his own escape route to sober celebrations on a mezzanine in Paris, lamenting those who never made it out.

    He’s not a conscious rapper, he’s a conscience rapper—attempting to make it to heaven in spite of those he may or may not have helped to hell. He says more in a bar than most say in an album ("I need to fight the power, but I need that new Ferrari.") No one has done contrition like this since Clipse.

    It’s all here: semi-automatic blasts and seagull sounds, Christ juxtaposed with crip walking, suntanned assassins trapped in surf-adjacent slums. He riffs on racial profiling, drug addiction, educational failures, police brutality, and white folks chanting "nigga" at concerts. He’s the halfway point between Ice Cube and Ian Curtis.

    Listen once more to the doomed pop of "Summertime", his voice practically disintegrating as he repeats, "this could be forever, baby." He’s scarred enough to know that’s it’s a lie, still hopeful enough to believe that if he says it loud enough, things could actually change. —Jeff Weiss

    Vince Staples: "Señorita" (via SoundCloud)

    Grimes

    Art Angels

    4AD

    3

    "B-E-H-A-V-E never more!" sneers Claire Boucher, like a subversive punk cheerleader, on the stadium-worthy "Kill V. Maim". "You gave up being good when you declared a state of war," she proclaims, delivering the final three words in an intense, throaty scream. The little snap from a traditionally feminine pop vocal into a full-on battle cry sounds like a slap in the face to an industry that regularly demotes Boucher’s artistic status to that of a "girly" female vocalist. Because Art Angels makes it clear that Grimes is not a voice on the sidelines, but a player in the field: a music producer who’s honing her skills like she’s sharpening a well-crafted sword. The move from the ghostly electronica of Visions is not Grimes "going pop,” but rather evidence of her musical touch growing more versatile and vibrant.

    The album teems with bubbly, maximalist pop-leaning music, all jangly guitar samples, thumping bass drums, and Boucher’s voice layered and warped into addictive sing-alongs. It has two distinct personalities: the dark, fighter-stance synth-pop of songs like "Kill V. Maim" and the Janelle Monáe-featuring club-ready banger "Venus Fly", or lighter, bubblegum jams like "California" and "Belly of the Beat". Whether over minimalist piano ballads or macho guitar rock, Boucher faces those who’ve doubted her, tackling fame-hungry vampires, platonic heartbreakers, privileged men, and more. She's taking all the heat and intensity that comes along with an Internet-fueled spotlight and radiating that energy outward, blinding detractors and putting on an epic light show for everyone else. —Hazel Cills

    Grimes: "Flesh Without Blood"

    Jamie xx

    In Colour

    Young Turks

    2

    The Persuasions' "Good Times" is one of those songs where the good times are always just about to come. "I can’t afford the fancy dancing places/ But as long as you have faith in me/ We’ll have ourselves a grand time", the a cappella group proclaims on its 1972 single, locked in the future tense. Jamie xx sampled a line from the song for In Colour’s dancehall-tinged song of the same name, but he tellingly lets the original track play in full during live performances. The point is obvious when the sampled section hits: This was clearly the right selection.

    In Colour is an album full of perfect decisions like this. The London producer honed the knack for subtleties that he first flashed in his 2011 solo one-off "Far Nearer" and on Gil Scott-Heron’s remix album We’re New Here, establishing himself as a solo force in his own right. The album tread broader stylistic territory than the hushed guitar minimalism of his main group the xx, from Popcaan and Young Thug’s gleeful profanity on "Good Times," to the Aphex Twin ambient lullaby "The Rest Is Noise," to the fractured vocal samples of "Sleep Sound," which recalls the blissful techno shimmer of the Field. The wistful thread tying this all together was that unbridgeable distance between past and present: You heard it in the soaring synth melodies and disembodied rave chatter of the opener, "Gosh". But it’s "Loud Places", where Jamie xx takes fellow xx-er Romy Madley Croft’s vocals to one of those "fancy dancing places" in search of "someone to be quiet with, who will take me home," where the good times are closest at hand: "I feel music in your eyes/ I have never reached such heights." In Colour distills that feeling. —Marc Hogan

    Jamie xx: "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)" [ft. Young Thug and Popcaan]

    Kendrick Lamar

    To Pimp a Butterfly

    Interscope / Aftermath / Top Dawg

    1

    At this point, it should be no surprise that Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly is the Album of the Year on numerous lists, including this one. Upon its release, it was universally lauded. It was only March, but the writing was on the White House walls: To Pimp a Butterfly was an opus, a statement, a feat. It felt weighty, labored, accomplished. One hour and 20 minutes of big ideas handled with complexity, it was a dextrous addition to the canon of art expressing disenchantment with fame and success. It launched a thousand thinkpieces, and forced critics to think deeply about music—to the point that it was still generating back-and-forths about its merits, as late as last month, eight months after its release. Commercially speaking, it set first-week streaming records on Spotify, meaning that it was being listened to as fervently as it was being debated.

    It's also Black as fuck. "Blackness" is a concept that remains fluid and intangible, but so solid that one can feel it when it’s present. And it was all over Butterfly. From the opening notes (a sample of Boris Gardiner's "Every Nigger Is a Star") to the closing—a fabricated conversation with Tupac Shakur—the album is packed with Blackness. Kendrick may not have given the public much advance warning for Butterfly’s rich sound—the luxe spillover of stripped funk and jazz grooving of Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and many others—but he made his thematic intentions abundantly clear with the pre-release singles. The first, "i", with its Isley Brothers sample and message of self-love, was initially overlooked for its subversion; while Black folk were telling the world that #BlackLivesMatter, Kendrick turned the message inwards: "I love myself." It was the amendment to his controversial statements to Billboard magazine that veered uncomfortably close to respectability politics. ("What happened to [Michael Brown] should've never happened. Never," he told the magazine. "But when we don't have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don't start with just a rally, don't start from looting—it starts from within.")

    At a moment when his peers remained fixated on finding worth and esteem from the world and things around them—the power of celebrity, the trappings of material excess, the numbing of drugs, the escape of sexual conquest—Kendrick emerged as a grounded Black hippie. He was enthralled with all of the same things as other rappers, but not beholden to them. He escaped into pussy on "These Walls" but philosophized as he stroked: "Walls telling me they full of pain, resentment/ Need someone to live in them just to relieve tension/ Me? I’m just a tenant." When he got drunk on "u", he turned to self-loathing: "Mood swings is frequent, nigga/ I know depression is restin' on your heart for two reasons, nigga." When he gassed up his luxury vehicle on President Obama's favorite song of the year, "How Much a Dollar Cost", he encountered God in the form of a beggar.

    None of these things are explicitly Black, but the lens through which they were filtered was undoubtedly so. From its vernacular to its point of view, To Pimp a Butterfly was about dealing with the survivor's remorse of escaping the poverty of Black America, while also relating to those still there. On "Institutionalized", when he took one of his hood friends to the BET Awards, he noted: "You lookin' at artistses like they harvestses/ So many Rolies around you and you want all of ’em/ Somebody told me you thinkin' 'bout snatchin' jewelry."

    Nowhere is Blackness more front and center than on the album’s second single, "The Blacker the Berry". It was the song that most clearly announced Kendrick's lack of fucks about the comfort of his white audience. Perhaps it was a retort to his previous Grammy snubs; maybe it was a reaction to seeing "Swimming Pools (Drank)", his anti-drunk song, turned into a pro-drunk song in the mouths of bros. Whatever his reasoning, "The Blacker the Berry" provided white people with no entry into the song: There is hardly anything on the song for Taylor Swift to lip sync in her car unless she was going to deal with psychic turmoil of mouthing "My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide/ You hate me don't you?/ You hate my people—your plan is to terminate my culture/ You're fuckin' evil, I want you to recognize that I'm a proud monkey." He labeled the song as the "emancipation of a real nigga" and, even in a society where whites regularly rub ears with the n-word, it was abrasive and unsettling.

    All of this Blackness is important. Important because sometimes white people need to take a metaphorical seat—to sit down, shut up, and listen to conversations in which they are a cultural object, not the center. This is not an easy task. White people have been way too comfortable for way too long in this country, in this world. Way too comfortable with the way they choose to see reality solely through their own gaze, way too comfortable with their sense of entitlement over the planet and its resources, way too comfortable with their appropriation of culture in ways large and small, way too comfortable with the stories they tell, the lies passed off as the history of mankind. Way too comfortable with the things they pick up, way too careless with the way they put them down. But Kendrick was willing to discomfort the comfortable. He took all of the acclaim he had received as a critical darling from his major label debut—the rightfully extolled good kid, m.A.A.d city—and doubled down on his Blackness, not for the entertainment of white people, but in near-total disregard for their experience of his conversation. He was Miles Davis playing with his back to the crowd, and in that sense, it's a miracle that this record has found the audiences that it has found.

    It's an album by the greatest rapper of his generation, where his rap skills are perhaps the least noteworthy talking point. An album so dense with ideas that it made the novelistic turns of his debut—a thoughtful and textured, gang culture-adjacent coming-of-age story—seem quaint and straightforward by comparison. It's an album that is on this list not only because of its merits, but because it's presumably why so many albums are not here, this year—it's not a stretch to reason that To Pimp a Butterfly had something to do with why Kanye West and Drake didn't release proper studio albums in 2015. It's an album with such gravitas that the runaway success of Adele's 25 seems inconsequential. It's not just the album of the year; it's the voice of a moment in time. —kris ex

    Kendrick Lamar: "Alright"


    0 0

    Staff Lists: The Year in Electronic Music 2015

    Marked by an exhilarating formlessness, this year’s vanguard electronic music resisted bite-sized, EDM-style consumption as it offered an endless malleability that spoke to our culture’s increasingly fluid sense of identity.


    In 2001, I was on the way back to San Francisco from Montreal's MUTEK festival when the U.S. customs agent discovered a suspicious-looking CD in my bag. On the cover, a naked, fleshy body—or was it two bodies?—twisted in some seemingly anatomically impossible formation. There was an elbow, and there was a spine, but the rest of it was impossible to decipher, just a writhing mass with ambiguously pornographic overtones. The agent called a colleague over and the two fixed me with withering stares. But there was nothing illegal, or even particularly obscene, about the disc: It was just a CD by the experimental electronic duo Matmos—1998's Quasi-Objects, to be precise—and eventually the agents sneered and sent me through. 

    I've been thinking a lot about that odd, uncomfortable encounter lately. Matmos' panorama of distorted flesh, simultaneously erotic and grotesque, now looks like a precedent for some of the bulbous forms, waxy surfaces, and distorted erogenous zones visual artist Jesse Kanda is creating to accompany the stridently unpredictable music of his friend ArcaAnd just as the guiding impulse behind Matmos' album was to take everyday sounds and stretch them into something unrecognizable, Arca's music is also about stretching sound—but it’s more directly confrontational.

    On his 2015 album Mutant, notes are not fixed to staves like dead beetles pinned to boards; they are living, writhing things, morphing and molting in real time, changing shape, shedding skins. Kanda and Arca’s collaborative work touches upon sensations like disgust and shame as well as formal beauty and sexual arousal. It can be difficult to look at and even harder to tear your gaze away from. It would have scared the shit out of those border guards.

    Jesse Kanda's artwork for Arca's Mutant

    When I recently interviewed Arca, he told me that he's drawn to such ambiguous sounds and distorted bodies because they represent "those in-between states where you can talk to people about things that maybe aren't OK to talk about otherwise—things that are taboo or repressed within us, things that we would never admit to ourselves."

    This isn't traditional subject matter for electronic music, but Arca is at the forefront of a vanguard of artists who are reshaping the sound and nature of experimental club music by exploding established forms from within. This crew—including Elysia Crampton, Lotic, Rabit, M.E.S.H., and Amnesia Scanner—is responsible for some of the most exciting sounds to emerge this year. Their productions are practically the only places you could hear electronic music being treated as a zone of possibilities and not simply an excuse to rehash well-worn patterns. 

    I don't think it's a coincidence that the majority of the artists taking this approach are queer, and that many of them are people of color. Both are groups that have largely been forced out of mainstream electronic music as corporate interests have reshaped it in recent years. In contrast to EDM's boundless hubris and suffocating kitsch, these artists are pushing back and redefining electronic music according to different terms, where pride lives alongside doubt, and ecstasy rubs elbows with rage. Where most dance music—mainstream and underground alike—celebrates the mass, they are defiantly putting individual identity to the fore.

    Few did this more boldly in 2015 than Elysia Crampton, who spins the many intersecting facets of her identity—a trans woman and Bolivian-American who grew up between California and Mexico and until recently lived in Virginia's rural Shenandoah Valley—into wildly dynamic, bracingly dissonant electronic music.

    Her debut album, American Drift, folds crunk synth riffs and trap hi-hats together with Andean huayño rhythms while piling a vast array of disjunctive sounds: hip-hop chants, FM radio idents, laser zaps, breaking glass, crickets. And that's just the sonic aspect. The album's symbolic realm encompasses the Spanish conquest of Virginia, the grand sweep of the North and South American continents, the "thingness" of geology, and even the redemptively essentialist idea that brownness itself is a mineral state of being. 

    Even the album is just one element in a much larger body of work that teases out the overlapping layers of Crampton’s identity by juxtaposing seemingly incompatible forms. In a video called "Fire Gut" from a couple of years ago, she set a cover of Bonnie Raitt's "Can't Make You Love Me" to footage shot at a monster truck rally, to blissfully dissociative effect.

    And at Krakow's Unsound festival this year, she delivered a performance that was part concert and part graduate seminar in object-oriented philosophy: five minutes of music, then five minutes of lecture, and so on, for nearly an hour. Before she began playing, Crampton invited the audience to consider the "clowniness" of her music, but when she spoke, she ranged from the creation of atomic elements in the Big Bang, to her Aymara heritage, to the issue of "trans-visibility" in popular culture and the question of whether trans-being is not an end in itself, rather than a journey between two poles; the thread uniting it all was the idea of emancipation and survival.

    Crampton's music would not be easily mistaken for Arca's, or vice versa, but the elements that they share in common helped define the sound of experimental electronic music in 2015: muffled explosions, glassy digital synthesizers, the over-compressed bandwidth of FM radio; the metallic detritus of Southern rap and industrial music; the reduction of human voices to grunts and yelps. All of these sounds emphasize tension, disjunction, pliability—things being stretched to the breaking point.

    The same elements also turn up in the Texas producer Rabit's Communion, an album rooted in grime and sporting a wild, Hydra-headed shock of slithering, hissing sounds atop its gun-battle beats. Similar timbres populate Lotic's Heterocetera EP, released early in 2015, and his recent Agitations EP, both of which twist elements of IDM, academic computer music, and club beats into convulsive, concussive horror soundtracks. "Heterocetera" borrows the elastic vocalizing of Masters at Work's "The Ha Dance", a staple of the ballroom scene, and the reference is hardly arbitrary, even though the way Lotic warps that iconic riff into an ominous insect buzz has less to do with '90s house than it does this amorphous new style.

    Lotic: "Heterocetera" (via SoundCloud)

    "When I was getting into dance music and looking for music specifically made by people like me—black gay people—that was one of the first things I found," Lotic told me. "I always wanted to play with the sound, but I always wanted to do it in a respectful way, because I never lived in New York and I don't have a real connection to that scene."

    As much as this emerging sound feels rootless and sprawling, moving like an Internet-enabled oil slick, those NYC connections are crucial. Arca credits the palette of bomb blasts, breaking glass, and hard reverb to Total Freedom, a New York DJ fond of confrontational sounds and horror aesthetics, and Shayne Oliver and Venus X’s GHE20G0TH1K, an NYC party night that became a haven for proud outcasts on the cutting edge. Listen to some of Total Freedom's mixes on SoundCloud, and you can hear the roots of this "post-club" aesthetic bobbing around like amoebas in the primordial soup.

    Total Freedom: Dummy Mix (via SoundCloud)

    But this sound—which I hesitate to name, because it seems too mutable to be pinned down with a single term just yet—isn't just about specific tropes and forms. Formlessness itself is at the core of its unstable being, in ways that may indicate a sea change for the wider landscape of electronic music.

    Arca's Mutant smooshes together bass throbs and gelatinous treble into unsteady shapes that fall to pieces every time they get close to getting into a groove because, as he explained, "you become more animalistic when you don't know what's coming next." Rabit tracks like "Fetal" and "Pandemic" treat granular frequencies the way nuclear explosions fuse sand into glass, while the Berlin duo Amnesia Scanner melt down gabber kicks and rave stabs into a viscous digital slop. Lotic's Agitations takes the idea of structural dissolution to a new extreme. Listen closely and you can hear church organs, plangent IDM melodies, and other echoes of traditionally "musical" motifs being squashed and ground out beneath the sole of his boot.

    Lotic. Photo by Elias Johansson.

    Much of this music seems to have a slightly turbulent relationship with the club; with its shifting tempos, irregular beat patterns, and privileging of noise over melody, it's certainly not going to have bottle-service patrons wriggling around their jeroboams. That's not to say it can't work in a club setting—I've seen Lotic and Amnesia Scanner tear the roof off rooms. But it requires an audience willing to submit to a harrowing, white-knuckled ride. And while the Internet has supposedly shifted listeners' habits away from albums and toward single tracks, many of these artists are doing their best work in longform.

    Amnesia Scanner: "AS Baltic Rim / Confission" (via SoundCloud)

    Lotic presented Agitations as a seamless, 30-minute mixtape as well as an eight-track album, and Arca's Mutant plays out like one long, sidewinding piece. These cases suggest an interest in making music that requires the listener to meet it on its own terms, that resists the bite-sized consumption and quick-fix pleasures of modern popular music. At the same time, all those erratic energies—the explosions, the crashes, the stumbling cadences and malleable tempos—stand as a rebuke to the roller-coaster predictability of EDM, with its programmatic crescendos and drops, as well as to the never-ending horizontal pulse of mainstream techno and house, in which the unchanging beat lulls clubbers into a kind of autopilot.

    And that's precisely what made the contributions of iconoclasts like Arca so exciting: Their innovations represent a shock to the system for a genre running on fumes. This year, electronic music's mainstream growth stalled as EDM's novelty faded; the big news in the sector was the collapse of would-be festival monolith SFX Entertainment, whose overreach symbolized commercial dance music's hubris. Elsewhere on the pop-dance front, Disclosure pumped out a pro forma second album that not even Disclosure fans could bring themselves to care about very much, while the insipid style known as tropical house was market-based aesthetic defeatism personified—complacency rebranded as "chill."

    Middle-of-the-road techno and house kept doing its thing, and it was fine. At this point, middleground club music—not quite mainstream but not really underground—is a lot like indie rock: a self-sustaining community with relatively fixed aesthetic and social norms. The four-to-the-floor sound of clubs in hubs like Berlin, Ibiza, and London is essentially a niche subculture that occasionally overlaps with broader trends in pop culture, but only accidentally (and rarely in a catalyzing role). And that's OK! There's nothing wrong with musical conservatism, if the results are finely crafted. But even venturing further into the underground, there wasn't nearly enough weirdness.

    Dance music doesn't belong to any one group; indeed, one utopian aspect of club culture has always been its possibility to bring together individuals from all walks of life. But it's not hard to see how house music, whose very origins are inextricable with black, gay, and Latino communities, has been whitewashed and straightened out in its latest wave of mainstreaming.

    The refashioning of club aesthetics along more confrontational lines is a direct response to the way that many gay, lesbian, and trans individuals feel disenfranchised by the current state of dance music. In a text accompanying Agitations, Lotic explains that the record “was born out of the frustrations that come with touring, playing mainly festivals in Europe (which are largely populated by straight white men with narrow views on music), and feeling increasingly out of touch with club culture and with the music industry in general." He continues, "Agitations is… a reminder that there is great strength in having the outsider’s perspective."

    Rabit: "Pandemic" (via SoundCloud)

    It's an interesting choice of terms, given the brief rise, in recent years, of something called "outsider house," a style of grotty, lo-fi house and techno made mostly by straight, white men; the "outsider" tag, meant to signal these artists' roots in the noise scene or their disregard for commercial norms, is a relative term. And when you consider Lotic's perspective as a black, gay American man making radically uncategorizable music in the heart of post-gentrified Berlin—not to mention Eylsia Crampton crafting her "trans-evangelist" statements in rural Virginia, or from a farm in Bolivia—that outsider tag suddenly becomes much more salient.

    Elysia Crampton


    All of this music feels informed by the tenor of the times. A text accompanying the release of Rabit's Communion notes that the album was "inspired by issues relating to sexuality, gender, ownership of our natural bodies, societal and governmental injustices, and media manipulations." It's a vague statement, but the gunfire that rips through a song like "Pandemic" is far more explicit. The violence of the track is genuinely unsettling; it leaves you feeling shell-shocked. That raw-nerve quality is telling. In terms of politics, economics, the environment, and everyday psychological well-being (are humans really meant to be online all the time?), this decade can feel rough enough to a white, American, cis-het male like myself. Strip away some of those protections, and you can understand why this music seethes the way it does. When I remarked upon a sound in Lotic's "Trauma" that I thought was a crow, he set me straight: It's actually "a man howling in distress."

    This emergent electronic aesthetic is not explicitly limited to queer communities. You can hear elements of it in Holly Herndon's Platform, an album that largely concerns itself with technology, inequality, systems of control, and the redemptive power of community, and Oneohtrix Point Never's Garden of Delete, in which adolescence is spun out into forking paths—EDM and progressive rock and synthesizer music and "hypergrunge"—arrayed into maze-like configurations and slathered with ooze. 

    Oneohtrix Point Never: "Ezra" (via SoundCloud)

    Earlier this year, I lumped postmodern electronic pop collective PC Music into this group, in large part thanks to their elasticized sounds and gender ambiguity. But I'm coming to believe that PC Music is exactly the opposite. There's little at stake in SOPHIE's gender play, for example; even the sex toy accompanying his debut album feels like little more than a consumerist spoof. PC Music plays with identity as a kind of commodity—see GFOTY, aka Girlfriend of the Year, a performer whose public persona amounts to a kind of chav drag, or QT, a conceptual artist masquerading as a can of energy drink masquerading as a pop star—whereas this new aesthetic explores the idea of identity as excess, something that can't be contained by traditional 4/4 beats and mastering plugins.

    A few months ago, in a New York Times Magazine essay about intersectionality entitled "The Year We Obsessed Over Identity", Wesley Morris wrote, "[O]ur rigidly enforced gender and racial lines are finally breaking down. There’s a sense of fluidity and permissiveness and a smashing of binaries." I thought of that passage when Arca explained to me how he uses his art to express the full spectrum of his identity: "It's not about living my life as a boy or a girl—but I'm also not trans—it's just that one day you wake up feeling masculine, and one day you wake up feeling feminine. The flickering in between those two states is what's most fertile for me."

    If anything defined this year's vanguard electronic music, it was that flickering. These sounds will continue to spread in the coming years, and no doubt they will begin to settle into established patterns. If we're lucky, though, at their core they'll remain as unstable as they are today, with an essential and expressive arrhythmia bred into their bruised and bleeding heart.


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    Photo Galleries: The Year in Photos 2015

    Check out some of our favorite portraits and live shots from the year, featuring Sleater-Kinney, Grace Jones, Vince Staples, Thom Yorke, Lykke Li, Iceage, Lauryn Hill, Perfume Genius, Shamir, and Jamie xx.

    Thanks to the photographers who contributed to this gallery: Erez Avissar, Maria Louceiro, Ebru Yildiz, Tonje Thilesen, Tom Spray, Pooneh Ghana, Alban Gendrot, Samantha Marble, Matt Lief Anderson, Ellie Pritts, Kristina Pedersen, James Emmerman, Devon Little, and David Brandon Geeting.


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    Staff Lists: The Year in Lyrics 2015

    The best lyrics stick in your head like the best scenes in a movie. "Leave the gun—take the cannoli" might as well be "I might let your man chauffeur me but he gotta eat the booty like groceries." To honor some of the most indelible lines of 2015, we asked artist Laura Breiling to bring them to life.


    "When I’m fucked up that’s the real me"
    — The Weeknd, "The Hills"

    "Take them boys to school, swagonometry"
    — Young Thug, "Best Friend"
    "She runnin' away from my weed like it farted"
    — Young Thug, "Never Had It"
    "Every time I dress myself it go muhfucking viral"
    — Young Thug, "Halftime"

    "Put me on a pedestal and I'll only disappoint you"
    — Courtney Barnett, "Pedestrian at Best"

    "Might let your boy chauffeur me, but he gotta eat the booty like groceries"
    — Jhené Aiko, "Post to Be"

    "Moments of clarity are so rare
    I better document this"
    — Björk, "Stonemilker"

    "We're all gonna die"
    — Sufjan Stevens, "Fourth of July"

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    Staff Lists: The Best Metal Albums of 2015

    Below you’ll find my Top 25 favorite metal albums of 2015, along with a few more individual lists from other critics who write about heavier music for Pitchfork. It’s an annual tradition to hear people talk negatively about consensus in year-end writing, but looking at each person’s picks here, something that stands out to me is just how different these lists can be, even when limited to a specific genre. In fact, there are a number of records that only show up once. This wide range says something about the great year metal had, yes, but also about the mindset of metal listeners in general. When I got into this music as a pre-teen in the '80s, it wasn’t very cool; its profile has risen in some cooler circles since then, but it’s still a place, at least to me, where you can talk about what you like without judgment—unless, maybe, what you like is Deafheaven.


    Windhand

    Grief’s Infernal Flower

    Relapse

    25

    On their third album, this Richmond doom band's guitars come together with frontwoman Dorthia Cottrell’s calm, haunting voice to make memorable anthems. Produced by Jack Endino, Grief’s Infernal Flower is filled with fuzzed stoner metal marked by a thick, molasses tone, soulfulness, and hooks as big as they need to be.

    Windhand: "Crypt Key" (via SoundCloud)

    Myrkur

    M

    Relapse

    24

    Danish multi-instrumentalist Amalie Bruun’s debut album is an immersive collection of classic-sounding black metal and Scandinavian folk that features chilly piano, melodic ghost-choir interludes, passages of frozen noise, clamoring industrial bits, and a gong. Bruun writes the music, sings in both a crystal clear and gnarled voice, and also plays piano and guitar. She recorded the album in Oslo, co-producing the 11 songs with prolific musician and producer Krystoffer Rygg, aka Garm, the mind behind Norwegian black metal legends Ulver and one of the genre's important shaping forces.

    Myrkur: "Nordlys" (Buy on Bandcamp)

    Noisem

    Blossoming Decay

    A389

    23

    Noisem’s debut, Agony Defined, was an exhilarating mix of old-school whammy bar-rich thrash and death metal with little bits of grind and punk thrown about; people were fair when they brought up Slayer and Napalm Death's Scum. The group’s second album, Blossoming Decay, is burlier. The playing is sturdier, faster, and more hulking. The blazing solos are still there, but the actual riffs pull just as much of your attention. And the singing is freer, gnarlier, and more rabid—it's a nonstop vocal attack that comes off more punk and personal than Agony. And these nine songs are not about horror films, they're about the personal horrors of life and living. Blossoming Decay is a metal record that'll appeal to punk kids—and Trash Talk fans—as much as it'll blow the minds of metalheads.

    Noisem: "Cascade of Scars" (Buy on Bandcamp)

    Obsequiae

    Aria of Vernal Tombs

    20 Buck Spin

    22

    Tanner Anderson is the driving force behind Obsequiae (formerly Autumnal Winds), a Minneapolis trio who blend Medieval harp and Medieval lyrical stylings with raw black metal on songs with titles like "Orphic Rites of the Mystic". I first became aware of Anderson a few years ago through his ambient, naturalistic funeral doom project, Celestiial, where he wove field recordings of streams, rustling leaves, and birds into his heavy, often industrial-seeming tones. On Aria of Vernal Tombs, there are church bells, echoing vocals, the sound of a dark forest, and solo harp pieces accompanying the blast beats, and it all works. Someone should honestly book them at a Renaissance Faire. Genre name suggestion: "Black Madrigal."

    Obsequiae: "In the Absence of Light" (via Bandcamp)

    False

    Untitled

    Gilead Media

    21

    The Minneapolis band False play swirling, full-speed black metal chaos that features two guitars, bass, drums, keys, and a rabid vocalist named, simply, Rachel. This untitled LP follows a 2011 EP with no name. The songs do have titles, though, and carry a crusty punk naturalism (and nihilism): "The body decays and becomes the Earth/ Death is welcomed, not to be dead, but to feel the Self dying/ To cleanse the idea of self with the deluge of blood from flesh/ This is the rebirth through pain, in which we embrace the sensuality of nothingness." It’s ritualistic and cleansing, its five songs stretching to an hour. The album reminds me of Weakling in some ways, but it’s harder and more warped sounding and less dreamy—this is more war march, less nocturnal dream. It’s like they’re racing to a finish line that never comes.

    False: "Saturnalia" (via Bandcamp)

    Pinkish Black

    Bottom of the Morning

    Relapse

    20

    The third and best album from Pinkish Black finds the Fort Worth, Texas duo mixing deathrock with krautrock, analog drone with glimmering melody, and the solitary atmosphere of horror movie soundtracks with the welcoming voice of Daron Beck. Think Christian Death morphing with Tortoise, or Ian Curtis guesting with Goblin. Beck may also bring to mind a goth Mike Patton, Peter Murphy, or Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman: At times he snarls and howls like he’s in hell, but he mostly croons, chants, and pushes his crystalline baritone skyward. All these elements come together in a dense, seven-song collection that’s about as majestic as it is creepy.

    Pinkish Black: "The Master Is Away" (Buy on Bandcamp)

    Vastum

    Hole Below

    20 Buck Spin

    19

    San Francisco’s Vastum create suffocating, masochistic, warped death/crust metal that sounds like it was recorded in a wind tunnel (or a sewer). The raging vocals of Daniel Butler and guitarist Leila Abdul-Rauf feels like a gang mugging, but there’s an odd catchiness to the chaos—even with song titles like "Sodomitic Malevolence" and "Hole Below (A Dream of Ritual Abuse)".

    Vastum: "Sodomitic Malevolence" (Buy on Bandcamp)

    High on Fire

    Luminiferous

    eOne Music

    18

    The sludgy Oakland stoner trio High on Fire, fronted by one of our greatest living guitarists, Matt Pike, have been so all-around solid for such a long time that it can be easy to overlook just how flat-out great they’ve become. They’re my generation’s Motörhead, and this relentlessly revved-up collection is one of their strongest offerings.

    High on Fire: "Carcosa"

    Kowloon Walled City

    Grievances

    Neurot

    17

    The San Francisco four-piece Kowloon Walled City slow things down on their third album, Grievances, which blends post-rock, sludge, and references to Unwound with tons of space. They take their time with each of the record's seven tracks and aren’t afraid to grow nearly silent before exploding into another tortured howl from vocalist/guitarist Scott Evans, who will remind you of your favorite '90s noise rock or floor-punching hardcore frontman. The songs are heavy, distraught, and, in the end, very beautiful.

    Kowloon Walled City: "Grievances" (via Bandcamp)

    VHÖL

    Deeper Than Sky

    Profound Lore

    16

    This knockout band features John Cobbett and Sigrid Sheie from folk-inflected progressive metal heroes Hammers of Fortune, YOB frontman/doom legend Mike Scheidt, and kvlt punk Aesop Dekker, the drummer for one-time SF black metal legends Ludicra and currently of Agalloch. Deeper Than Sky is a tour through classic metal with everything slightly cracked. You get twisted, ebullient thrash metal and power metal folding in on itself; impressionistic guitar solos alongside vocal parts that make me think of Queen; and a piano piece set to d-beat drums. Scheidt’s vocal performance is a revelation, as are the colorful acrobatics of the band tearing things up around him.

    VHÖL: "Deeper Than Sky" (via Bandcamp)

    Skepticism

    Ordeal

    Svart

    15

    The Finnish funeral doom band’s first album since 2008 is an eight-song, 78-minute evisceration of the soul in slow motion. Vocalist Matti’s growls are deep and gnarled; the music around him is often light, precise, almost gentle. (It can also get fittingly theatrical when the keyboards and strings reach for the sky.) Featuring six new tracks along with two old ones, Ordeal was recorded live in front of an audience in Turku, Finland, and the setting gives these elegantly crushing excursions an especially vibrant life force.

    Skepticism: "March Incomplete" (Buy on Bandcamp)

    Paradise Lost

    The Plague Within

    Century Media

    14

    The seminal gothic metal/doom band Paradise Lost have been around since 1988. Their 14th studio album, The Plague Within, continues a run of amazing mid- or late- or whatever-career offerings that started with 2009’s Faith Divides Us—Death Unites Us, a personal favorite, and continued with 2012’s Tragic Idol. This is heavier and harsher than those two albums and finds them shifting back to their earlier death/doom days, with Nick Holmes shredding his voice. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of stately gothic metal, too. Like Swans, Paradise Lost prove that some bands get even better with age.

    Paradise Lost: "No Hope in Sight"

    Bosse-de-Nage

    All Fours

    Profound Lore

    13

    The Bay Area duo Bosse-de-Nage create hyperactive post-black metal punk with Slint moments and highly sexual lyrics along the lines of: "At night she reenacts scenes from her passion/ She kicks and screams on all fours." Their latest album follows their 2012 split 12” with Deafheaven and travels to a much creepier place. Bryn Manning’s lyrics read like short stories—like Pig Destroyer’s best work, or Calvino or Borges penning pornographic parables. "I come from the City of Hair beyond the Wrinkled Mountain," one character notes, "and I will not rest until I’ve washed every penis in this room." It wouldn’t be wrong to think of a twisted version of Sunbather penned by a Bataille fanatic and released by AmRep.

    Bosse-de-Nage: "In a Yard Somewhere" (via Bandcamp)

    Prurient

    Frozen Niagara Falls

    Profound Lore

    12

    Dominick Fernow’s Prurient discography is extensive—I’d venture to say there are more than 150 releases of some size or another with his name on it—so it feels stupid to call any single release his "best." But the sprawling, 90-minute Frozen Niagara Falls has made me consider it. It’s a record that ties together Fernow’s rawer past and points toward something new. There are meditative moments followed by industrial implosions, moments that will make you want to dance, and stretches that will make you want to smash your head against a wall. It is pained and also ecstatic; cinematic and very personal. It’s also maybe the most romantic harsh noise album ever made.

    Prurient: "Greenpoint" (via SoundCloud)

    Locrian

    Infinite Dissolution

    Relapse

    11

    Over the last 10 years, the music made by prolific Chicago/Baltimore trio Locrian has always been tough to categorize: Is it noise? Black metal? Dark ambient? Industrial? Drone? Things get especially complicated on Infinite Dissolution, where they manage to be more triumphant and bigger than before. The nine-song effort, recorded at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio and produced by Greg Norman (Russian Circles, Pelican), is a concept album about the extinction of the human race, but you’ll find yourself pumping your fist as frontman Terence Hannum’s haunting black-metal vocals slither through a melancholic, melodic mix of fuzz, hiss, and riffs. Stitched together by woozy instrumentals that feature birds chirping and iron scraping, the album marks a new peak for the creatively restless group.

    Locrian: "Heavy Water" (via SoundCloud)

    Sannhet

    Revisionist

    The Flenser

    10

    Sannhet, the instrumental Brooklyn trio of bassist AJ Annunziata, drummer Christopher Todd, and guitarist John Refano, are one of the best live bands going. Onstage, they’re a marvel; Todd in the middle and up front, a drummer nobody can stop watching; Annunziata manning an intense light show with his foot. Then, when you listen to their excellent second album, you wonder how all this noise could come from just three guys. They make soaring-but-concise post-rock anthems that will make you punch the air and maybe (probably) cry.

    Sannhet: "Lost Crown" (via SoundCloud)

    Horrendous

    Anareta

    Dark Descent

    9

    Horrendous honor old school death metal by taking it apart and putting it back together again as something entirely new. The eight songs on their third album are mournful, mathy, anthemic, pristine. You’ll hear Swedish death metal, American thrash, majestic doom, bits of gnarled black metal, and even a stirring post-rock outro. They’re technical but soulful players, and though the solos and time shifts can make you gasp, it’s the music’s emotion and guts that stay with you.

    Horrendous: "Polaris" (via Bandcamp)

    Mgła

    Exercises in Futility

    Northern Heritage / No Solace

    8

    On their third album, the Polish black metal duo Mgła offer up six perfectly paced tracks—the efficiently titled "Exercises in Futility I" through "Exercises in Futility VI"—that respect the black metal template but push things subtly, capably forward. There’s nothing especially fancy here; Mgła make perfect use of the ingredients of basic, raw, melodic black metal. The tracks are imposing and blistering, but approachable: If you’re someone who can also hear hooks in Watain and old-school Burzum, this will come off like nihilistic pop.

    Mgła: "Exercises in Futility I" (via Bandcamp)

    Dead to a Dying World

    Litany

    Gilead Media

    7

    The Dallas, Texas collective Dead to a Dying World’s second album moves through apocalyptic crust punk, post-rock, black metal, doom, and exultant stringed soundscapes to create an album focusing on our failing environment and earth and that feels like Godspeed fully giving into their metal tendencies. Here, the seven-piece group, which features multiple male and female voices along with guitars and orchestra bells, is supplemented by guest vocals from Pallbearer’s Brett Campbell, Pinkish Black’s Daron Beck, and Jamie Myers-Waits of Sabbath Assembly, among others.

    Dead to a Dying World: "Cicatrix" (via Bandcamp)

    Baroness

    Purple

    Abraxan Hymns

    6

    Purple is the first album since Baroness’ near-fatal van accident, and the first to feature the new lineup that came together after two members left the group following the crash. It’s shorter and more precise than 2012’s Yellow & Green, and they left Relapse to release it on their own imprint, Abraxan Hymns. These are some of the biggest, strongest songs Baroness have written; it's rock music that folds in their more metal leanings, along with something more delicate and spare. The choruses are their best—maybe because each and every one of them is life-affirming. (Watch the in-studio video for "Chlorine & Wine" to get a sense of this jubilation.)

    Baroness: "Chlorine & Wine"

    Khemmis

    Absolution

    20 Buck Spin

    5

    The Denver quartet Khemmis’ excellent debut LP features six muscular, melodic songs that flash between vintage doom, heavy blues, and classic rock’n’roll. Their two vocalists overlay clean and gnarled vocals—you hear Candlemass one moment, a floor-punching hardcore sermon the next. Like fellow modern purveyors of the old guard Pallbearer, Khemmis nod to the classics just enough to remain pure and update them enough to be your new favorite band.

    Khemmis: "Serpentine" (via Bandcamp)

    Panopticon

    Autumn Eternal

    Bindrune / Nordvis

    4

    Autumn Eternal concludes a trilogy by Minnesota-via-Kentucky multi-instrumentalist Austin Lunn, aka Panopticon, who plays everything here outside of a violin. He powers into more traditional atmospheric black metal and dark folk-inflected naturalist metal featuring subtler banjo/fiddle accents than before. There are acoustic guitars and nocturnal field recordings, but the real draw is the rich, gorgeous guitar tone, amazing drumming, and melancholic (and, at times, vicious) atmosphere. You may think of vintage Katatonia, but, like Agalloch, this music was pulled directly from the American landscape.

    Panopticon: "Sleep to the Sound of the Waves Crashing" (Buy on Bandcamp)

    Bell Witch

    Four Phantoms

    Profound Lore

    3

    If someone close to you has died, you know that mourning can be a lonely and suffocating experience: Bell Witch, who named themselves after a poltergeist from Southern folklore, evoke these sorts of feelings. The Seattle duo's haunting take on funeral doom is melancholic, heavy, slow, and beyond minimal. It evokes burial. Four Phantoms is gut-wrenching and cathartic in the way the saddest things can be.

    Bell Witch: "Judgement, In Fire: I – Garden (Of Blooming Ash)"

    Tribulation

    The Children of the Night

    Century Media

    2

    Tribulation’s 2013 collection The Formulas of Death added progressive rock, clean guitars, piano interludes, and flanged Eastern elements to the group’s thrashing Swedish death metal. Children of the Night is more focused, nailing a vintage heavy rock feel—think Mercyful Fate with a gnarlier vocalist. The songwriting is mind-blowingly on point, the hooks hummable after one listen. Though they're quite different than recent tourmates Deafheaven, they share an ability to make "extreme" music catchy. And unlike a lot of forced kvlt stuff these days, you could actually start a cult around this music.

    Tribulation: "The Motherhood of God"

    Deafheaven

    New Bermuda

    Anti-

    1

    Somehow, the Los Angeles band made an album that’s even better than their classic-seeming Sunbather. New Bermuda’s heavy parts are heavier, the quiet moments prettier, the push and pull of its overall sequencing perfect. It’s the first proper full-length recording from a lineup that’s been touring together for the past couple of years, and they really gel here, each player striving to reach their limit. The album is moving, romantic, and powerful, and sounds great in a large room or when you’re just lost in your own head.

    Deafheaven: "Baby Blue" (via Bandcamp)

    Honorable Mentions: My Dying Bride: Feel the Misery [Peaceville]; Cruciamentum: Charnel Passages [Profound Lore]; Krallice: Ygg Huur [self-released]; Leviathan: Scar Sighted [Profound Lore]; Crypt Sermon: Out of the Garden [Dark Descent]; Vattnet Viskar: Settler [Century Media]

    Next: Pitchfork contributors list their favorite metal albums of 2015.

    Jason Heller

    10. God Mother: Maktbehov [Violent Groove]

    I can’t seem to make a year-end metal list without including at least one raging metallic hardcore record. This year it’s Maktbehov by Stockholm’s God Mother, an asteroid crash of an album that renders most of its competition extinct. Hatred, loathing, misery, morbidity, and an apocalyptic impatience to get to the fucking finish already: This one’s got it.

    9. Mastery: Valis [The Flenser]

    Ephemeral Domignostika’s first proper full-length as Mastery, Valis is another hyper-distorted, one-man black-metal affair. Yet it isn’t. Entwined within the San Francisco multi-instrumentalist’s labyrinthine riffage and acrobatic technicality is a core of despair that’s alchemically transformed into a perverse, horrific triumphalism. One might even call it masterful.

    8. Monolord: Vænir [RidingEasy]

    Doom. Dude. Done to death, etc. So why does every year this decade seem to serve up another reverential-yet-innovative, ear-and-earth-shattering new doom masterpiece? This year, Vænir by Gothenburg’s Monolord takes the cake: Wielding one of the most ominously overdriven guitar tones in recorded history, frontman Thomas Jäger and crew render supernatural dread and cosmic nothingness into cavernous, hypnotic grooves.

    7. Obsequiae: Aria of Vernal Tombs[20 Buck Spin]

    Even if I wasn’t a longtime Ritchie Blackmore fan, I’d probably still have a huge soft spot for medieval folk in metal. And even if I didn’t have such a soft spot, I’d probably still love Obsequiae. On Aria of Vernal Tombs, the Minneapolis band’s blend of ornate black metal, symphonic vastness, and strains of pagan (note: not neo-pagan) folk coalesce into a valiant atmosphere on par with Twilight of the God-era Bathory.

    6. Cloud Rat: Qliphoth [Halo of Flies]

    Over the past few years, Cloud Rat has been one of the most consistently progressive underappreciated metal bands in America. Lacing grindcore blitzkriegs with micro-blasts of crust, powerviolence, and about-face experimental tangents—including interludes of slow, dreamy beauty—Qliphoth demands and rewards rapt attention.

    5. Harrow: Fallow Fields [Broken Limbs]

    Fallow Fields, the latest full-length from Victoria, British Columbia’s Harrow, is the band’s strongest outing yet, despite its humble vessel: Originally released on cassette and falling in the mid-fi range of the sonic spectrum, the album’s folk-inflected black metal employs bodhrán, violin, and cello in its synthesis of ritual and oblivion, bypassing easy tropes in favor of a righteously traditional, deeply personal resonance.

    4. Magic Circle: Journey Blind [20 Buck Spin]

    Magic Circle might be from Boston, but by the sound of Journey Blind, you’d think they hail from Conan’s own Cimmeria. Not that the group plays anything remotely resembling power metal; instead, this album is a work of high-energy, deeply melodic (but never slick) doom that’s buoyed by classic-rock songcraft and downright majestic hooks.

    3. Tribulation: The Children of the Night [Century Media]

    It’s taken Sweden’s Tribulation a little while to grow into its ambition, but they’ve finally delivered, and then some, with The Children of the Night. Charred death metal steeped in occult gloom and saturated in gothic inkinesss, this is the kind of metal that’s always one misstep away from being irredeemably ludicrous—thankfully Tribulation not only nail an ideal balance between theatricality and conviction, they back it up with songs for eternity.

    2. Dead to a Dying World: Litany [Tofu Carnage]

    What does loss mean to you? The word’s become overused lately when describing anything of a melancholic bent, but that doesn’t dull the engulfing sense of emptiness at the heart of Dead to a Dying World’s Litany. The Dallas outfit’s latest opus suffuses orchestral sprawl with a soul-hollowing spaciousness, a Wolves in the Throne Room-meets-Godspeed You! Black Emperor vibe that’s as painful and raw as hole in the heart.

    1. Garden of Worm: Idle Stones [Svart]

    When you take your name from a King Crimson song, you’re setting your band up for some high expectations. To date, Finland’s Garden of Worm has done some decent stuff, including their self-titled, 2010 full-length, a retro-doom workout that in no way prepared me for the new Idle Stones. It’s as if the band has aged a hundred years over the past five; the album’s four tracks embrace the progressive promise of Garden of Worm’s name while boiling its rich and heady haze into a stark, tuneful, soulful meditation on forever.

    Honorable Mentions: Bell Witch: Four Phantoms [Profound Lore]; Deafheaven: New Bermuda [ANTI]; Panopticon: Autumn Eternal [Nordvis Produktion]; He Whose Ox Is Gored: The Camel, the Lion, the Child [Bleeding Light]; Vastum: Hole Below [20 Buck Spin]; Leviathan: Scar Sighted [Profound Lore]; Kowloon Walled City: Grievances [Neurot]; Baroness: Purple [Abraxan Hymns]; Windhand: Grief’s Infernal Flower [Relapse]; Pombagira: Flesh Throne Press [Svart]


    Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

    10. Nostalgie Depression: Ahora que la Luz se ha Ido... [Depressive Illusions/Amenti]

    True to the spirit of the earliest black metal pioneers, Santiago, Chile's Nostalgie Depression stick to a rough-hewn, home-recorded approach that keeps the music suitably raw. Even though principal instrumentalist/songwriter Nayenezgani refers to his music as "depressive suicidal black metal," he has a romantic streak and an ear for delicate sounds that would do the likes of Morrissey and Robert Smith proud. Nayenezgani is not above featuring flutes, bird sounds, and loads of acoustic guitars. In fact, much of his work falls smack dab into neo folk territory—which is precisely what makes it so refreshing. One of several releases that the prolific bandleader put out this year, Ahora que la Luz se ha Ido ("now that the light has gone") leans most closely to a traditional black-metal style, but expect to be confused in a good way on browsing the rest of Nostalgie Depression's output.

    9. Various Artists: Morbid Tales! A Tribute to Celtic Frost [Corpse Flower]

    No one can capture the essence of the mighty Frost—or even Sepultura's blissfully abrasive Roots-era cover of "Procreation (Of the Wicked)". But the acts who appear on this tribute score big by going for creative bastardizations instead of trying to be overly reverent. Taken as a whole, the variety of takes represented here give this album a zany, party-record kind of charm. Even the disavowed Cold Lake, bandleader Tom Warrior's ill-conceived foray into hair metal, gets a nod, as does the monumental post-millennial doom of the band's one-and-done reunion album Monotheist. Municipal Waste and Child Bite (with Phil Anselmo on guest vocals) bring out Celtic Frost's easily overlooked punk side, while a couple of Neurosis members give Frost an ambient noise makeover. Tribute albums rarely hit the mark like this one does.

    8. InAeona: Force Rise the Sun [Prosthetic]

    Given heavy music's limitless potential to absorb a full spectrum of moods, it's shocking how rare it is that bands reach for emotions we haven't necessarily heard in a metal context before. As InAeona frontwoman Bridge Laviazar wails amid a maelstrom of delays, keyboard swells, and crashing drums, she casts a ghostly presence over her band's blend of space rock, industrial, and metal. It's obvious she's agitated (in the broadest sense of the term), but the exquisitely detailed mix places her voice in a supporting role, which allows the listener to get carried away by the Boston trio's ambiguous—and thoroughly gripping—brand of darkness.

    7. Wrekmeister Harmonies: Night of Your Ascension [Thrill Jockey]

    If the merger of 16th-century madrigals, chamber music, and doom metal sounds contrived on paper, J.R. Robinson and his ensemble cast of 30-plus musicians manage to avoid all the cliches that could have consumed this album. Contributions from members of Einstürzende Neubauten, Bloodiest, Come, Mind Over Mirrors, and a slew of others make for a fresh hybrid that's as porous and accommodating of foreign sounds as it is dense. Vocalist Marissa Nadler, harpist Mary Lattimore, and sound artist Olivia Block in particular practically steal the show. Consisting of two extended pieces that span 32 minutes and 16 minutes respectively, Night of Your Ascension both honors and re-shapes the traditions that Robinson and company draw from. Robinson also anchors the music in genuine torment, basing these pieces on the real-life cases of composer/murderer Don Carlo Gesualdo and pedophile priest John Geoghan, whose stories charge the music with an ugly, and all too human, sense of mystery.

    6. Windhand: Grief's Infernal Flower [Relapse]

    There's an elusive sweet spot where bands can be both heavy and melodic without leaning too much to one side or the other. Windhand frontwoman Dorthia Cottrell and the rest of the Richmond quintet hit that spot and induce an auditory bliss that you almost feel guilty about as you work your way through Grief's Infernal Flower. The band's formula couldn't be more straightforward: insistent stoner/doom riffs weave in and around Cottrell's soaring vocals. The album doesn't replace Windhand’s entire menu so much as it gives you an extra-flavorful taste of the band's soup, having simmered long enough for the ingredients to set.

    5. KEN mode: Success [Season of Mist]

    On its sixth full-length, Winnipeg trio KEN mode decided to wear its '90s noise-rock/post-metal influences on its sleeve, a fact underscored by the band's decision to work with Steve Albini this time around. So it's not hard to spot shades of the Jesus Lizard, Big Black, Cop Shoot Cop, Drive Like Jehu, Cows, Barkmarket, and others in Success' seething blast-furnace roar. But the hat-tipping to their elders works because, at this stage, KEN mode have spent the better part of the last dozen years honing their craft at gig after gig. It shows. KEN mode may be the product of the vocabulary that Steve Albini and his peers invented, but there's no mistaking the approach to dynamics, the attitude, and the intellect for anyone else. Success captures a band succeeding on its own artistic terms.

    4. Pig Destroyer: Prowler in the Yard reissue [Relapse]

    Of all the metal bands who have tried their best to delve into humanity's darkest corners, none have gone quite as deep—or achieved such dazzling results—as Pig Destroyer frontman J.R. Hayes, whose lyrics explore depravity and pathos with the literary power of Edgar Allan Poe and William Burroughs combined. Likewise, few extreme-metal producers can rival guitarist-bandleader Scott Hull's ability to wrest clarity from even the most densely-packed grindcore. For this reissue, Hull remixed and remastered the band's 2001 sophomore full-length, significantly improving upon the fidelity of the mix, but the original is also included in a deluxe 2CD edition. More importantly, this reissue drives home just how much Pig Destroyer stood apart from the pack even at this early developmental stage. Almost 15 years later, Prowler in the Yard is the sound of a band grabbing the metal establishment by the shoulders and shaking it with relentless force.

    3. Maruta: Remain Dystopian [Relapse]

    There's something to be said for purists who stick to their guns and play straight grindcore. Maruta sounds like one of those bands, that is until you realize that it isn't. The Miami quartet plays a death-tinged brand of grind with a punk energy that's so infectious you don't initially notice the technicality at play on the its third full-length. At 17 tracks, Remain Dystopian makes for an exhausting listen that leaves you feeling spent, as if you've just been working out for an hour, but uniquely clever lyrics about technology, decay, and extinction help make the album thrilling from start to finish.

    2. Pyrrhon: Growth Without End EP [Selfmadegod/Handshake]

    This unorthodox five-song offering from Brooklyn avant-death metal quartet Pyrrhon makes you wonder why the overwhelming majority of death metal bands adhere so strictly to genre conventions. If you want to engage in a kind of retaliatory sonic warfare against everything that is banal and conformist in this world, then this is the record for you. On Growth Without End, Pyrrhon make you feel like you are having an unanticipated neurochemical reaction without having to suffer any of the adverse effects. Sit back and enjoy the mind-fuck.

    1. Fuck the Facts: Desire Will Rot [Noise Salvation]

    If you think about it, grindcore never had any business sounding this fresh. Even given the sparks of invention that French-Canadian grind outfit Fuck the Facts have shown over previous releases like Stigmata High-Five, Die Miserable, and this year's EP split with Fistfuck, Desire Will Rot raises the bar to an all-new level. It would be impossible to convey the variety of textures and styles that the band incorporates here—or how seamlessly they all gel into one continuous train of thought. Much more than your typical exercise in technical virtuosity, Desire Will Rot is not only an indicator of how creatively healthy metal remains in 2015, but also serves as a signpost that points to the boundless possibilities that lie in its future.


    Zoe Camp

    10. Blind Guardian: Beyond the Red Mirror [Nuclear Blast]

    Everyone loves a good fantasy, and metal’s beloved raconteurs came through on their 13th album with orchestral arrangements, ambitious vocal layering, and a strong overarching concept make this LP a winning addition to the band's catalog.

    9. Sigh: Graveward [Candlelight]

    Japan’s weirdest metal crew went above and beyond with Graveward, tossing everything from free-jazz to prog-rock into the hellish melting pot. More than 20 years after releasing their debut LP, the avant-garde unit continue to surprise.

    8. High on Fire: Luminiferous [eOne]

    The sludge titans never fail to disappoint, continuing the momentum of 2012’s great De Vermis Mysteriis to create the definitive stoner sludge epic of the year.

    7. Black Fast: Terms of Surrender [eOne]

    Self-described progressive blackened thrash metal outfit Black Fast snarl in the face of the sophomore slump on Terms of Surrender, a varied, venomous onslaught of timeless sonic terror.

    6. Poison Idea: Confuse & Conquer [Southern Lord]

    After nine years, the Kings of Punk descended upon the hardcore universe with their tightest album yet: 11 caustic compositions that bring the fury of their 1983 opus Pick Your King into the new millennium.

    5. Horrendous: Anareta [Dark Descent]

    One of the biggest challenges in metal is drawing upon the genre’s cadre of influencers without falling prey to lazy appropriation. On the solo-rich, awe-inspiring Anareta, one of the East Coast’s most fearsome bands filter the legacy of acts as variable as Metallica and Mayhem through a cacophonous prism that nods to the past while racing onwards into the vast void of the future.

    4. Vattnet Viskar: Settler [Century Media]

    A blistering bricolage of science fiction, space-age philosophy, black metal, and technical wizardry, Settler is less an album than it is a fearless voyage into the event horizon, a poignant testament to man’s relentless drive to survive.

    3. Napalm Death: Apex Predator/Easy Meat [Century Media]

    Every time Napalm Death release an album, it’s like the grisliest Christmas present Santa was too scared to drop in your stocking. Well, Christmas came early this year: Apex Predator/Easy Meat is Napalm Death’s best in over a decade.

    2. Baroness: Purple [Abraxan Hymns]

    On their latest, greatest album, Savannah’s most talented doom outfit transcend tragedy through warm melodicism and stadium-ready choruses, rather than mournful contemplation. Purple features Baroness’ most impressive instrumentation to date—every solo, thunderous beat, and percussive cascade is a joyous declaration.

    1. Deafheaven: New Bermuda [ANTI]

    From its eloquent, tortured narratives to its numerous stylistic experiments, every square inch of New Bermuda brims with suspenseful, sublime soundscapes that retain their awesome might no matter how many times you listen.


    Andy O'Connor

    20. Magic Circle: Journey Blind [20 Buck Spin]

    Magic Circle take all the best from Witchfinder General, Pagan Altar, 70s Pentagram, Manilla Road—pretty much every great bit of metal pre-thrash—and bring it together for heavy metal revivalism that feels like it never left the hall. There's shades of progressive metal in there too, but Chris Corry and Dan Ducas are less heady and more headbanging. Combined with Brendan Radigan's soaring wail, they've put their veteran elders on notice.

    19. L.O.T.I.O.N.: Digital Control and Man's Obsolescence [La Vida Es Un Mus Discos/Toxic State]

    L.O.T.I.O.N.’s digital industrial hardcore sounds like Godflesh at double speed, or Napalm Death focusing all their hate on technocrats. Their proper debut, Digital Control and Man's Obsolescence, galvanizes their themes of futuristic dystopia and shows their more punk side. The guitars have the rawness of Negative Approach at their bleakest and, set in the background of technological warfare, their thinness is an appropriate production choice. Meanwhile, the electronic drums have a hint of humanness, mimicking an act of rebellion against total mechanic takeover.

    18. Revenge: Behold.Total.Rejection [Season of Mist] 

    If you've never felt like the dude in Shellac's "Prayer of God", you haven't lived. Revenge is that dude at his boiling point, and Behold.Total.Rejection is their most potent offering yet. Unparalleled drummer James Read is a master of the Canadian War Metal style that eschews detail and melody for outright blasting; with Proscriptor's speed and Dale Crover's heft, it's useless to keep up with him. Rejection provides a clearer sound for Revenge’s assault, highlighting a sense of dynamics that most of their peers lack.

    17. Pissgrave: Suicide Euphoria [Profound Lore] 

    If there's any band that can compete with Revenge's single-minded hatred, it's Philadelphia's Pissgrave. They're like Revenge wearing cutoff shorts—a little more frayed, a little looser, but no less savage. Suicide Euphoria is an unforgiving embrace of the ugliest parts of death metal. The only semblance is relief is "The Second Sorrowful Mystery", which sounds like Power Trip possessed by Absu. This is pretty much an evil Disintegration Loops—instead of trying to find beauty in destruction, the album revels in it.

    16. Uniform: Perfect World [12XU] 

    Did L.O.T.I.O.N. not satisfy your post-apocalyptic quota? Uniform’s Perfect World is the soundtrack to the fallout from whatever will kill us—it doesn't matter, it's all applicable. "Buyer's Remorse" might be the best hardcore song this year, even when they obliterate it to noisy shreds. By the way, how mad are streetwear brands that they don't have a sigil as awesome as this band’s?

    15. Dhampyr: Oceanclots [Acephale Winter] 

    Dhampyr's discography is massive, but in the sea of cassette demos and other obscurities, Oceanclots stands above, providing an entrance into their world of blown-out, confused, beautiful black metal. The whole record sends you into a seasick lull. Oceanclots was born from immense pain, after the death of core member H.L.'s girlfriend; the closer, "Sea-Eclogue for Genevieve", contains samples of her vocal tracks, and knowing those circumstances, it's almost too much.

    14. Leviathan: Scar Sighted [Profound Lore] 

    True Traitor, True Whore was an unfocused mess, driven by Leviathan mastermind Wrest's burning need to establish his side of the story concerning his arrest for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. With time and a clearer mind on his side on Scar Sighted, Wrest takes the ambient influence of his 2008 album Massive Conspiracy Against All Life and sinks it deeper in. When Wrest blasts, like his Cursed-via-Darkthrone "Within Thrall", it's more convincing than his ramblings on Traitor. There's lost acoustic pluckings, wordless chants, and subdued military drums that don't suggest aimlessness as much as finding one's self in the aftermath of huge turmoil. If you're going to be difficult, be compelling too.

    13. Jute Gyte: Ship of Theseus [Jeshimoth] 

    Adam Kalmbach has quietly released several albums of mind-bending black metal as Jute Gyte, recorded using microtonal guitars. He's a talent that will fly above most, but still deserves greater recognition. Jute Gyte's first release of 2015, Dialectics, was an electronic affair that existed on the ambient edge of IDM and glitch. Ship of Theseus is the bewildering black metal his cult fanbase has come to expect, and even though he's defined his aesthetic pretty well, he's still revolutionizing the face of USBM. Like Mastery, his closest peer here or anywhere, there's a bit of a No Wave madness to his playing, where it doesn't make sense broken up but becomes clear (if still deranged) when put together. If you're just delving into his material, this is a good start. You'll be occupied for a while.

    12. High on Fire: Luminiferous [eOne] 

    High on Fire have achieved a Motörhead-like consistency, and Luminiferous is yet another gem from America's most reliable metal band. Can you think of anyone else who could take tar-drenched riffs like those in "The Black Plot" and make them the antithesis of lethargy? "Slave the Hive" is another standout, taking the Bay Area thrash that's a part of their heritage and giving it a modern spin. While High on Fire records may not exactly be events anymore, they're still far better than most metal that's come out this year. We can get used to excellence.

    11. Noisem: Blossoming Decay [A389] 

    Noisem embarrass the metal scene as a whole with their vicious death-thrash on Blossoming Decay. They still have the Slayer-Carcass fusion down to lethal precision, but they've also expanded their sound, putting greater focus on deathly ambient interludes and crossover breakdowns. You can feel their wide-eyed playing, even if you have no idea who they look like or how young they are. And if you wonder why people bring up their age so much—was your band this ripping right before you graduated college? Or now? Or in 10 years? Or ever?

    10. Sect Pig: Self Reversed EP [Nuclear War Now!] 

    Sect Pig, an entity whose members are completely unknown, take the primitive repetition of Von and pickle it in a malignant psychedelia, adding disturbing layers while maintaining the id of their root influence. The vocals are animalistic to an almost literal level, often imitating pig grunts. With Self Reversed, their second EP, they've opted for one long composition, finding new dimensions of their hypnotic sound in the process. Throat singing and isolating bells accompany a sample of a lecture about the characteristics of serial killers, combining the coldness of academia with the incomprehensible irrationality of what's being studied. It's a necessary update on the goofy worship of Dahmer and the like from generic death metal bands. Even at only 18-and-a-half minutes, Self Reversed offers some of the most haunting metal this year.

    9. Mgła: Exercises in Futility [Northern Heritage] 

    Exercises in Futility dwells on the struggle to make meaningful change, where even day-to-day life is a useless endeavor. Mgła's performance does not suggest futility at all; M.'s mid-paced Dissection worship and Darkside's inventive drum work (those ride cymbals!) are almost heretically life-giving. It's more intelligent than slacktivists who confuse nihilism with an excuse to not get out of bed, and it's a more realistic prescription than social media-driven glossy optimism. M.'s closing words are: "As if all this was something more/ Than another footnote on a postcard from nowhere/ Another chapter in the handbook for exercises in futility." But Exercises in Futility is a reason to live.

    8. Bell Witch: Four Phantoms [Profound Lore] 

    Bell Witch’s 2012 album Longing gave us a fresh take on the ultra-slow, ultra-depressing genre of funeral doom by using sonorous six-string bass as the driving instrument; Four Phantoms expands that melodic range while penetrating deeper into themes of loss and slow, natural destruction.

    7. Mutoid Man: Bleeder [Sargent House] 

    Mutoid Man made a much better Torche record than Torche did this year. When it came to zero-irony, guitars-as-cocks, just-plain-fun metal, Bleeder was the record to beat. To compare this to Van Halen might be a little grandiose, but there isn't anyone else in this era who can fuse technicality with catchiness. Some of the group's hardcore roots come out here, wrangled by big hooks and bigger smiles all the while.

    6. Horrendous: Anareta [Dark Descent] 

    Horrendous' debut full-length, The Chills, only came out three years ago, and they've displayed breathtaking growth since then. Anareta carries on the spirit of Chuck Schuldiner, Death's deceased founder, incorporating progressive structures while remaining brutal. There's loads of huge melodies, the closest we'll ever get to stadium death metal. Vocalist/guitarist Damian Herring is a fool if he isn't giving his best Bruce Dickinson "SCREAM FOR ME LONG BEACH!" during the end of "Ozymandias". Death metal often makes you feel angry and frenzied, but Anareta also brings out romance, ambition, glory, and the will to carry on. Don't be surprised if they tour with Deafheaven in the near future. (Don't take that as an insult, either.)

    5. Pyramids: A Northern Meadow [Profound Lore]

    Pyramids' self-titled debut album worked because it was a clash of dream-pop and black metal. A Northern Meadow works even better because those two sides are now working together. They benefit so much from consistency, right down to William Fowler Collins' subtle electronics that underline the whole record. Meadow is a metalgaze record that isn't afraid to assert itself as metal. Most importantly, this is how much of a badass vocalist and ringleader R. Loren is: He got Vindsval, the creator of Blut Aus Nord, to contribute exclusive drum programming. This is like getting Miles Davis to do a couple trumpet lines, or Richard D. James to provide some backing synths. In a genre where intimidation poses end up meaning squat, he is clearly not a dude to fuck with.

    4. Deafheaven: New Bermuda [ANTI] 

    New Bermuda is Deafheaven’s most metal record yet, and not just because of its darker cover, or the fact that Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra throw in some serious mosh riffs on "Baby Blue" and "Come Back". This is metal modernized, metal that understands it's healthy to be vulnerable, that exposure can strengthen the core ethos of integrity against all odds. Frontman George Clarke uses his power to draw you in and bond in a way that you and him only comprehend, a classic metal sort of bonding without trampling on the graves of the '80s. The seed they planted way back in 2011 has finally sprouted into the fully formed beast it was destined to be.

    3. Mastery: Valis [The Flenser] 

    Mastery set out to test the compositional limits of black metal, attempting to reach higher levels of technicality and speed. Valis is the first true realization of this ambition, a record that harnesses chaos towards a greater understanding of the self, genius ascending at immeasurable velocity. Mastermind Domignostika is clearly on another level, blazing through triple-speed German thrash, Ouroboros-like tapping, No Wave freakouts, Blut Aus Nord grandness, and blasting acoustic refrains in as much space as it took you to read that sentence.

    2. VHÖL: Deeper Than Sky [Profound Lore] 

    If you were to ask me why I love heavy metal, why it's my music of choice long after I pledged to defend the faith in eighth grade, I will point you to VHÖL. They're true to metal, but also really daring, mixing styles with careful abandon. Deeper Than Sky is a record that embraces diversity while refusing to buckle to mediocrity. John Cobbett is a riff master, no question, from black to thrash to ever-reliable Thin Lizzy worship. He's built for both speed and detail. Mike Scheidt also gets to flex his vocal range, transitioning from California crossover to Midwestern power-metal wailing to bearded Tom G. Warrior with ease. Also, there's a d-beat piano piece called “Paino”. If that isn't the clincher, you wasted a lot of time reading this list.

    1. Prurient: Frozen Niagara Falls [Profound Lore] 

    Prurient, the main guise of Dominick Fernow, has been constantly redefining extreme music by using noise as not just intimidation, but also a way to open, a way to deal. Melodies blossom and die with equal intensity, squeals and static blasts act as an extension of his pained poetry. He uses noise as a guiding spirit, not a rigid code to live by, which makes him one of the most compelling artists of any field right now. Frozen Niagara Falls offers a definition of what extreme music can do when it's allowed to be more than a caricature or an escape.


    Grayson Haver Currin

    10. Obsequiae: Aria of Vernal Tombs [20 Buck Spin] 

    This is "folk metal" that gets both portions of that often-abused term right. Obsequiae pulls Renaissance musical traditions and melodies into its own vortex, incorporating both strains into songs that are as bright and inviting as they are relentless and tough.

    9. Yellow Eyes: Sick With Bloom [Gilead Media] 

    There’s very little that’s fancy or ostentatious about Sick With Bloom, the late-arriving six-song LP from New York trio Yellow Eyes. The album’s mid-length black metal songs drift in and out on ponderous intros and then go hard. But listen for the way the rhythm section seems always on the verge of splitting through the action around it. It creates a riveting tension, causing me to listen again and again.

    8. Dead to a Dying World: Litany [Tofu Carnage] 

    Let’s call this big-picture black metal. In a year loaded with bad headlines on most every front, Dead to a Dying World’s very long songs addressed injustices (often environmental) and attempted to draw some energy from them. A strange comfort, indeed.

    7. Sannhet: Revisionist [The Flenser] 

    In 2015, I never expected to be so taken by a record that falls so swiftly into the post-rock and post-metal pigeonholes as Sannhet’s Revisionist. But the Brooklyn trio attaches those forms’ crescendos and powers to concise songwriting that never forsakes momentum. As vivid and teeming as a cityscape, Revisionist never offers an opportunity to exit.

    6. Cloud Rat: Qliphoth [Halo of Flies] 

    Led by the unstoppable Madison Marshall, this Michigan quartet’s militant, unapologetic grindcore riots make it seem like the band most likely to kick your ass. But listen to the smart, considered sociopolitical sentiments beneath the squall, and you’ll realize they’re more likely to take you out for a (vegan) sandwich and discuss the problems of the day.

    5. Black Cilice: Mysteries [Iron Bonehead] 

    This aptly named album from the, uhh, enigmatic Portuguese one-man-metal band Black Cilice hovers in a realm of lo-fi recording and tape hiss haze. It’s a black metal record that, by virtue of its production, bends toward drone and sound-art—a wicked, delightful trick that’s been overlooked too often in the genre’s primitive beginnings. 

    4. Bell Witch: Four Phantoms [Profound Lore] 

    There was no better doom missive this year than Bell Witch’s Four Phantoms, a creeping and exquisite look at the ways the four elements can end you. Bell Witch is a bass-and-drums-and-vocals duo; on the carefully composed and captured Four Phantoms, the pair sounds like an empire.

    3. Locrian: Infinite Dissolution [Relapse] 

    Locrian used to be such a busy band, putting out records at a pace that suggested they were trying to outrace the doomsday scenarios about which they wrote. But as Locrian has slowed its production, the trio’s albums have grown more complicated and compelling. This year’s involved and engrossing Infinite Dissolution is, to date, Locrian’s peak of sophistication—it’s like being told bad news in a way that’s meant to make you enjoy it.

    2. Horrendous: Anareta [Dark Descent] 

    This Philadelphia trio flexes on death metal nostalgia here, showing that it can hang with revivalism but doesn’t need to. These eight songs are a well-paced gauntlet of scrambled influences, peaking in the beautiful, revelatory wash of "Acolytes", one the year’s truly perfect metal moments.

    1. Tribulation: The Children of the Night [Century Media] 

    I had no idea this would happen. In the past, Tribulation were proficient, professional, and convincing death metal revivalists from Sweden. Big deal, right? No, but The Children of the Night—the first album on which the band cares more about its own legacy than that of its fellow Scandinavian citizens—is a big deal. Chockablock with big hooks and heroic solos, surprising redirections and stunning prog hints, these 10 songs are an inspired conquest from a band finally reinvented in its own image.


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    Staff Lists: The Year in Memes 2015

    Pitchfork's Social Media Director Charlotte Zoller (@cz77) is like the Internet in a person. She ranks 2015's musical memes, all in 140 characters or less. 

     

    20. Justin Bieber's Ass

    If you post your ass on IG, prepare to be the butt of the joke.

    Bieber got back!

    A photo posted by Miley Cyrus (@mileycyrus) on


    19. #PopeBars / #FLOTUSBars

    FLOTUS ON THE TRACK


    18. George Dalton's "Trap Queen" Cover

    If "Everybody's hatin'/ We just call 'em fans though," then the internet is littered with this kid's fans.


    17. Prince's Grammy Side Eye

    Just do yourself a favor and save the .jpg below:


    16. Kanye's 2020 Presidential Campaign

    President Kanye inspires some of the best Photoshop disasters of all time.


    15. Rihanna's Met Gala Dress

    It’s not deliveRiRi…


    14. Madonna's Rebel Heart Instagram Campaign

    In 2015 you'd think we'd know better than to photoshop revolutionary humanitarians into tasteless Instagram campaigns, but here we are!

    A photo posted by Madonna (@madonna) on

    A photo posted by Madonna (@madonna) on

     


    13. Hillary Clinton's Whip/Nae Nae

    Just... no.


    12. Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé's "Feeling Myself" Video

    ~Feelin’ these memes~ 


    11. Dabbing For Everyone

    Sneeze or dab?

    10. #BeyoncéAlwaysOnBeat

    #BeyoncéAlwaysOnBeat is as much of a testament to her icon status as it is to the #BeyHive's insane video editing skills.


    9. Poot

    2015 = the year Poot escaped her basement bunker and ran straight into our hearts. 

    * BONUS POOTPE *


    Credit: @the-gay-sleigh

    8. "MILEY, WHAT'S GOOD?!"

    Meek should have let Nicki ghostwrite his bars. 


    7. The Word "Hello"

    Where is “the other side” and how do I go to there?


    6. Straight Outta Compton Generator

    Props to the Beats by Dre team for creating a marketing campaign that morphed into an *actual* meme. 


    5. Future's "Sensational" Vine

    Wish I could use this Vine to describe this Vine.


    4. Left Shark

    If anyone on your timeline went as Left Shark for Halloween, immediately block/report-as-spam and never look back. 


    3. "Another One"/"Bless Up"/"You Smart, You Loyal"/"You Played Yourself"

    They don't want you to know that the key to success is following DJ Khaled on Snapchat


    2. Why You Always Lying

    Mmmmmohmygod… this video only gets better with time!!!!


    1. Drake, literal human meme

    a. "Hotline Bling" video 

    I know when that hotline bling, that can only mean more memes

    b. "Trusss me daddi" Vine 

    What a Time to Be on Vine

    c. Meek Mill Beef

    Leave it to Aubrey to fight a flame war via PowerPoint.

    @doncharleone

    A photo posted by champagnepapi (@champagnepapi) on

    d. Swole Drake

    Drizzy even memes his thirst traps.

    Live on TNT I'm flexin ooooooh

    A photo posted by champagnepapi (@champagnepapi) on

    e. Madonna Kiss

    *the horror* 

    f. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late Font

    If you’re reading this, it better not be in that fucking font. 


    BONUS MEME: Martin Shkreli's entire existence


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    Staff Lists: The Year in Punk 2015

    Punk is a perennial force. It comes back with thorns and petals. Like an ambulance siren in an emergency, or the rainstorm that pummels away a heatwave, music needs it when the world becomes too much to bear, when everything—our politics, our lives—call to be sharpened. As a term, punk has always contained dizzying multitudes, which is why it is great and why it often fails.

    The most powerful punk in 2015 acts distinctly as opposition art. It is self-activating music that appears at arm's length. It lets sound be a mirror where you can find yourself and hear that culture is in your own hands. It is a reflection of a shared agency; messy, never right, always flawed. It is an aesthetic of embodied philosophy, lightning-bolt reflections of searing reality, fleeting sparks of beauty in the dark. 

    Punk still offers this transcendence, and within the recordings and performances of two remarkably contemporary young groups, it seems to be getting better at it. G.L.O.S.S. and Downtown Boys perform two-minute acts of pure insurrectionism: their irreverence rejects canons and gives voice to the unheard. Their lyrics are such purposeful and poignant sketches of modern ire and malaise from the margins—for queer and trans people, for people of color, for women and the working class—that you could picture some of these words reborn in gospel or folk. They burn the no-future scripture of punk history to the ground as they scream its ashes away.

    Now, in punk, there is only the future.

    "They told us we were girls, how we talk, dress, look, and cry
    They told us we were girls, so we claimed our female lives

    Now they tell us we aren't girls, our femininity doesn't fit
    We're fucking future girls, living outside society's shit!"
    — G.L.O.S.S., "G.L.O.S.S. (We're From the Future)"

    Books will tell you punk destroyed rock’n’roll. Then hardcore and no wave came, destroying it further. And now G.L.O.S.S. are here to destroy hardcore. 

    What you hear in this Olympia, Washington group’s music is a story that has not yet been written. Vocalist Sadie Switchblade delivers passionate monologues for her fellow transwomen with a thrilling rage. When she shouts she empties her lungs with soul-cleansing force. “Singing in G.L.O.S.S. is kind of like getting to be a superhero,” she told Bitch, “like weaponizing a lifetime of anguish and alienation.”

    Their introductory five-song demo was released early in the year, emboldened by slashing riffs, d-beat thrash, and Sadie’s raw, irreducible words. “They told us to die/ We chose to live,” she roars on the necessarily militant “Lined Lips and Spiked Bats”. These lines all form a galvanizing and unapologetic code as they fly forth with a generative caps-locked intensity: “Masculinity/ Was the artifice/ Rip it away/ Femininity/ Always the heart of us/ Trans girls be free!” Their songs are animated by the vindictive sound of refusing defeat, of waging a war and charging on. “The freaks are coming!” goes the demo’s anthemic core, “Outcast Stomp”. “Take over! Take over! Take over!”

    In 2015, more trans murders were reported than in any other year on record, leading the Southern Poverty Law Center to deem it a national crisis. “Trans women of color… are facing a literal genocide in the U.S. right now,” G.L.O.S.S. guitarist Jake Bison told Maximum Rocknroll. When Sadie shouts, “You want the pepper spray first, or the pocket knife?” her threat is not just symbolic.

    The precedent for trans perspectives in punk reaches back to its dawn. Thirty years ago, pioneering trans punk Jayne County sang, “I am what I am, I don’t give a damn” on her song “Man Enough to Be a Woman”. “I am inspired to see the trans scene becoming a reality in contemporary punk,” County says of G.L.O.S.S. “It’s no longer vilified, mocked, and isolated as it was in the ’70s, when I transitioned and suffered for it at the hands of a homophobic and transphobic rock press.”

    G.L.O.S.S. have also made a fan of Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace, who began her process of transitioning in 2012. In discussing G.L.O.S.S., she mentions their sonic similarities with political hardcore acts from the ’90s like State of Fear, Destroy, Doom, and Health Hazard. “I so love the release of aggression that listening to those bands provided,” she says. “Unfortunately, whenever I found myself at hardcore shows outside of that anarcho scene (and sometimes within it), it usually turned out to be a bunch of dudes swinging their dicks and beating their chests trying to prove who was the toughest, thus suggesting hardcore aggression and volume as strictly male signifiers, which is bullshit of course. G.L.O.S.S. do their part to reclaim hardcore music from the bros.”

    A testament to this reclamation, G.L.O.S.S. fight to make room for non-bros at their shows. “If you don’t like being told to move over two feet so a brown trans woman can see a band, then go home and cry about it,” wrote bassist Julaya Antolin in a recent G.L.O.S.S. zine. “I have heard so many men complain about G.L.O.S.S. prioritizing space for queers, women, disabled folks, and POC because they feel excluded. Welcome to the daily experiences of my life.” At this point, the riot grrrl directive of “girls to the front” no longer seems like enough—there should be transwomen to the front, people of color to the front. Part of being a fan should be to recognize when it makes sense for you to step back, to imagine a space that does not include you.

    Despite their unwavering purpose, G.L.O.S.S. do not want to be seen by a mass audience. They exist in total resistance of mainstream press coverage (including a proposed interview for this website). “The role of things like MTV and Noisey is to make things that are indigestible by society digestible—tolerable, really,” Bison told MRR. “What is important to me about queerness is that it’s something that doesn’t speak the language of society. That’s what queer means: not normal, doesn’t make sense, anti-social. What we do is antagonistic towards society… I’m interested in destroying society, not being tolerated by it.”

    G.L.O.S.S. make their femme outsider music distinctly for the marginalized groups that it is representing. Shannon Thompson released a 7" version of the G.L.O.S.S. demo on her label, Nervous Nelly, which centers on queer and trans artists, after a cassette pressing quickly sold out. “G.L.O.S.S. know exactly who they are as a band, musically and ethically, and nothing will sway them from that,” Thompson tells me. “Sadie’s work has always hinged on an ‘outsider’ perspective, and that sees expression in G.L.O.S.S. as a rallying cry. It’s no wonder that punks (and ex-punks) who are women, people of color, queer, and trans seem to be answering that call en masse. G.L.O.S.S. gives us all a taste of invulnerability.”

    Downtown Boys

    "Why is that we never have enough with just what's inside of us?
    Today! Today! We must scream at the top of our lungs

    That we are brown and we are smart!"
    — Downtown Boys, "Monstro"

    Hailing from the other side of the continent, Providence, Rhode Island’s Downtown Boys offer more resuscitation through the joyful noise of blaring instruments and visceral human voices. Like G.L.O.S.S., Downtown Boys want to open up space in punk for those who have largely been shut out. But these bands have crucially different approaches, and both are valid. G.L.O.S.S. want to create their own world outside society, while Downtown Boys want to reach out, to infiltrate and subvert, to more directly change society.

    The six-piece sax-punk arkestra earns its comparisons to X-Ray Spex, but they are more lawless, more unhinged, way madder; their anarchic hardcore rhythms bear out expressions of anger and freedom from systemic oppression. Their album Full Communism is all liberationist music and politicized fight songs, its abstracted chants and wails struggling through dissonant horns. Their bilingual lyrics are charged and impressionistic, like mantric helicopter wings, chopping through culture. 

    Every atom of this band seems coded with intention. Even a recent cover of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” turned that song’s jolly hook—“He sees you when you’re sleeping! He knows when you’re awake!”—into a commentary on the surveillance state. Live, they compel their audience to face reality as singer Victoria Ruiz discusses the plagues of mass incarceration, borders, and racist police. A Downtown Boys show is a woke baptism. (Disclosure: I booked Downtown Boys for a concert highlighting feminist and political punk last year.)

    Downtown Boys: "Kids Are United" (via SoundCloud)

    Resisting psychic death, they are activists first but they understand that coolness and artistry are tactics, too. They battle capitalism and sexism in songs that take on wise, disparate influences from Sun Ra and Afrofuturism, to anarcho-punks Crass, to the Queen of Tejano music, Selena. There is an uncompromising cosmic energy to Downtown Boys, a kind of free jazz musicality. When they play, they lift off, but their hearts and minds are always of the people. "It is like my subconscious meets my conscious for 20 minutes," Ruiz has said. "Sometimes during songs I don’t know what the Earth even looks like, only what it feels like. The energy comes from the fact that we have to be expressive or we will only be silenced, we have to be deep or we will only be dead.”

    Downtown Boys know that punk as a total manifestation of the self—of transformation through art—is what makes it matter. It’s in their music as well as their projections of burning cop cars, their banners evoking the history of the working class, and their sartorial choices. In solidarity with her “immigrant brothers and sisters,” Ruiz has often worn an old room-service uniform from a former job, while drummer Norlan Olivo has covered his face with a bandana, evoking Mexican leftist revolutionary group the Zapatistas. When Ruiz delivers her impassioned monologues onstage, she’s channeling the messages of a political mind that has no off-switch. If it is indeed possible to write from the body, Ruiz does this every time she opens her mouth. At the very peak of “Monstro”, the empowered center of Full Communism, Ruiz colossally rips through her final exhalation—“SHE’S BROWN/ SHE’S SMART”—as though she is breathing oxygen into another person who needs it to survive, as if she is pushing her insides out to show just what they are.

    Downtown Boys: "Slumlord Sal" (via SoundCloud)

    Punk trailblazer Alice Bag sensed this when she saw a Downtown Boys set this summer at an L.A. record store so packed that the crowd spilled into the street and watched through the glass. “I felt immediate kinship with [Ruiz], not only because we're both Chicanas, but because I think we are both passionate performers who care about many of the same things,” Bag tells me. Just as there have been women playing punk since the ’70s, Latina punks like Bag have been crucial to the movement’s aesthetic and spirit since its genesis, and in the ’90s, bands like Los Crudos spearheaded a more readily identifiable scene. Downtown Boys work in both lineages and yet their music sounds utterly now. That they sing in both Spanish and English speaks to the pluralism of our lives—it says that “white” and “English-speaking” and “male” and “straight” are dead paradigms as soon as we each say they are, that the status quo exists to be rejected.

    The heaviest thing I read about Downtown Boys this year was by my 21-year-old friend Edgar. Two years ago, I met Edgar when I took a bus from Monterrey, Mexico to where he lives in McAllen, Texas, for a music festival in the Rio Grande Valley—a place where“a mosh pit can become a cumbia free-for-all in a matter of seconds,” where a punk show can turn into a “DJ blasting ‘Bidi Bidi Bom Bom’ while [the] entire crowd destroys a Donald Trump piñata,” where the threat of deportation is too real.

    In his essay, Edgar described the life-affirming experience of having Ruiz pull him onstage to shout alongside Downtown Boys. “The sax began conjuring its chaos, and the drums synched with the beating of our collective heart,” Edgar wrote. “I stared out into a sea of familiar faces, all looking up at me and looking up at Downtown Boys, smiling and chanting my name. I remembered being 15 and contemplating ending life as a whole… I saw my friends singing my favorite song with me and the most important band in the world, and most importantly I saw the light in myself.” This is how punk happens: You go to a show, then you become one.


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    Staff Lists: The Best Experimental Albums of 2015

    Featuring everything from wordless hymns sung by ghosts, to brain-massaging minimalism, to solitary field recordings, to a symphony of cicadas, The Out Door's Marc Masters and Grayson Haver Currin present their 20 favorite experimental releases of the year. Follow The Out Door on Twitter and Tumblr for more experimental music news and info.


    Oren Ambarchi / Jim O'Rourke

    Behold

    Editions Mego

    20

    The year’s big Jim O’Rourke news, of course, came with May’s release of Simple Songs, his long-awaited return to discrete and discernible songcraft, where reflections of Van Dyke Parks were more apparent than his love of, say, Akos Rozmann. But earlier in the year, O’Rourke and the musician who has become perhaps his closest collaborator—the drummer, guitarist, and sound artist Oren Ambarchi—issued Behold, their second duo album. A two-side set of slow-moving, groove-oriented tones and drones, peaks and lulls, Behold suggested a jam band working to adhere to several tenets of modern design—clean lines with negative space, striking colors, and an understandable palette. The piece accomplishes a lot even as it goes almost nowhere, with Ambarchi and O’Rourke electing to accessorize and fill in their simple rhythmic design rather than force it into new shapes. Listening to this is like sitting in a museum and staring at a painting, noticing new layers and elements even though you know it and you remain still. —GC

    Oren Ambarchi & Jim O'Rourke: "Behold (excerpt)" (via SoundCloud)

    Delphine Dora / Sophie Cooper

    Distance Future

    Was Ist Das?

    19

    France’s Delphine Dora and England’s Sophie Cooper have both made impressively uncategorizable music over the past decade, and while they’ve been mutual supporters (Dora released Cooper’s excellent Our Aquarius on her Wild Silence label last year), this is the first time they’ve played together. Improvising in a echo-laden church in West Yorkshire, the pair found a sound distinct from their respective individual work. Their voices fill the space in a haunting-yet-reverent way; some of the tracks are like wordless hymns sung by ghosts. Distance Future’s surrounding ambience reminds me of the holy drones of Charlemagne Palestine and Janek Schaefer on Day of the Demons, but where that record’s power came in clarity, Dora and Cooper’s work is more mysterious—and ultimately something only these two could conjure. —MM

    Delphine Dora & Sophie Cooper: "Les Differences S'unissent" (via SoundCloud)

    Drainolith

    Hysteria

    NNA Tapes

    18

    Alexander Moskos can really take a song apart. His work as Drainolith is all about splitting the atoms inside of tunes, breaking out all the sonic elements so they separate while still overlapping. On Hysteria you can watch his songs fuse and disconnect in real time. Every moment feels like an altered state, and most of them induce one too, changing your perspective about what exactly constitutes a song. In this way Moskos shares some deconstructional affinities with Neil Hagerty, who produced this album. But Moskos’ cloud of confusion is unique, and on Hysteria he’s perfected that haze. —MM

    Drainolith: "No Name (Dany Kane's Blues)" (via SoundCloud)

    James Place

    Living on Superstition

    Umor Rex

    17

    Phil Tortoroli’s second release as James Place is a masterpiece of understated exploration. All of the tracks have a cool, detached feel, but that subdued exterior masks a wide-ranging sonic ambition, as Tortoroli delves into ambience, minimalism, techno, glitch, New Age, and tons more. In places you can hear the echoes of Fennesz’s faded memories, Forest Swords’ disembodied voices, and Labradford’s slow burns. But Tortoroli avoids mimicry and pastiche by allowing all kinds of sounds into his patient vision. Think of it as calm excitement: Living in Superstition massages brain waves as it simultaneously toys with your pulse. —MM

    James Place: "High Rise (Rainier)" (via SoundCloud)

    Marisa Anderson / Tashi Dorji

    Split

    Footfalls

    16

    The realm of solo instrumental guitar music is typically dominated by white male musicians. Maybe by coincidence, maybe not, Footfalls Records broadens the scope of practitioners with its debut release, a two-guitarist split between the Bhutan-born Tashi Dorji and Oregon’s Marisa Anderson. Dorji explores his acoustic as if it’s an unmapped territory: During his three songs, he picks up the slide, scrapes the strings, plays thin notes, offers broad chords, chimes out harmonics and rattles around the neck. Still, these songs somehow maintain a sense of melody, where the tune itself matters just as much as the texture it conjures. Anderson, on the other hand, steadily plucks an electric, her patient melodies curling from thick strings with full body. But it’s her sense of time—contracting, expanding, quickening, slowing—that feels revelatory here, as if she exists at a flexible nexus of the past, present, and future. When she massages together the standards "The House Carpenter" and "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" into a song that feels like her own, you realize maybe she does. —GC

    Tashi Dorji & Marisa Anderson: "Karma Lata" (via SoundCloud)

    Félicia Atkinson

    A Readymade Ceremony

    Shelter Press

    15

    After years of making music (under her own name and as Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier) that was often dense and heavily layered, Félicia Atkinson turned quieter and more intimate on the transfixing A Readymade Ceremony. Her vocals—mostly delivered in soft spoken-word—are so present it’s as if she’s sitting right next to you. Yet for all its clarity and immediacy, A Readymade Ceremony still feels like a dream; the songs’ strange internal logic heads straight for the subconscious and at times even resembles ASMR therapy. The intoxication of Atkinson’s music works on many levels—you can zone out, you can zoom in, or you can drift somewhere in between, but no matter what angle you approach A Readymade Ceremony from, it ends up enveloping you. —MM

    Félicia Atkinson: "L'Oeil" (via SoundCloud)

    Kevin Drumm / Jason Lescalleet

    Busman's Holiday

    Erstwhile

    14

    The bulk of Busman’s Holiday, the second collaboration between American noise masters Kevin Drumm and Jason Lescalleet, is totalitarian in its approach to volume. Opener "The Hunt", for instance, seems to be an exercise in how far and how slowly the pair can ramp the knob to the right, a shard of controlled static growing so loud it eventually overrides all other thoughts. And with its Sunn O)))-sized bass rumbles below and hovering electronic hiss above, "Belligerence" seems keen on crowding out all frequency interference, of fending off any intrusion into the world Drumm and Lescalleet have created. Indeed, as they write in the liner notes, "This album is a meditation on the inner mental environments of work-related travel" and, as such, is intended for careful listening in those situations. That is, it shuts out the crying baby in the next row. But there are quiet moments here, too, parts so silent relative to their surroundings that one must pay steadfast attention in order to hear what’s happening at all. Somehow, these are more isolating and magnetic than all the electronic power this duo can otherwise mount. It’s OK to put your hands over your ears in public, right? —GC

    Kevin Drumm & Jason Lescalleet: "The Push (excerpt)"

    75 Dollar Bill

    Wooden Bag

    Other Music

    13

    Rick Brown and Che Chen both have long resumes, but their duo 75 Dollar Bill began about as primitively as possible. Early on they busked on New York sidewalks, with Chen playing guitar and Brown beating on a plywood box (which also serves as his chair) that he found on a street corner. Two years and several releases later, their sound has grown and expanded, but still has a primal energy. Chen’s guitar winds helixes around Brown’s deceptively simple rhythms. Even though 75 Dollar Bill’s music is rooted more in blues than jazz, these tunes share an aura with some of the best horn/drum improvisers, in the way subtle variations and tangential runs can open up whole worlds. A few meditative horn duets also add texture, but it’s the guitar-box jamming on Wooden Bag that echoes long after 75 Dollar Bill’s songs fade away. —MM

    75 Dollar Bill: "Cuttin' Out" (via SoundCloud)

    Daniel Menche / Mamiffer

    Crater

    Sige

    12

    During the last two decades, Pacific Northwest noise lord Daniel Menche has issued a few albums each year, alternating between militant percussive collages and slowly developing barrages. His pace has slowed during the last few years, but his new collaboration with Faith Coloccia and Aaron Turner, or Mamiffer, makes up for the lost time. A half-decade in development, the six-track Crater is a vivid exploration of uncanny sonic phenomena. During "Maar", a pretty piano line dissolves inside a bath of distorted guitar, as though separate signals have been routed through the same broken amplifier. "Alluvial" sends pedestrian field recordings into distant orbit, with long tones stuck inside a slow, steady vortex. And the brilliant "Breccia" laces the beauty of a gamelan orchestra beneath the terror of a power electronics roar, the juxtaposition daring you to choose between backing off or leaning in. —GC

    Daniel Menche & Mamiffer: "Calyx" (via SoundCloud)

    Mind Over Mirrors

    The Voice Calling

    Immune

    11

    Jaime Fennelly’s music as Mind Over Mirrors has always felt massive; the hypnotic loops he creates with Indian pedal harmonium feel endless. But The Voice Calling is more expansive than any previous Mind Over Mirrors record, primarily due to the project itself having gotten bigger with the the addition of Haley Fohr of Circuit Des Yeux. Fohr's vocal layers—mostly wordless—add a new dimension to Mind Over Mirrors, and every track on The Voice Calling shoots straight for the stratosphere. Part of that effect comes from a slight retro feel—classic Terry Riley comes to mind—but Fennelly and Fohr still sound absolutely present, caught up in the real-time magic of their attention-demanding music. —MM

    Mind Over Mirrors: "Calling Your Name" (via SoundCloud)

    Jon Mueller

    A Magnetic Center

    Rhythmplex

    10

    Over the years, Jon Mueller has been the powerful, full-kit force behind Death Blues, Collections of Colonies of Bees, Volcano Choir, and Pele. Solo or with a wide net of collaborators, he’s combined his drums and electronics with force and fascination. Alone, on the two-track A Magnetic Center, he does all of that with his voice, one hand-made and hand-held Arabic drum and a system of loops. The first side is pure trance, the intoxicating rhythms and chanted glossolalia turning into a mental cobweb that Mueller breaks only at the end with stirring yells. On the flip, a dead-ahead drumbeat provides the tension against his reversed, chopped-and-screwed voice, which suggests an ecstatic choir of true believers speaking in simultaneous tongues. Mueller’s work sounds exhausting to make; it is life-affirming to hear. —GC

    Jon Mueller: "Trace Essential" (Buy on Bandcamp)

    Letha Rodman Melchior

    Shimmering Ghost

    Siltbreeze

    9

    In the past few years Letha Rodman Melchior carved out a home between composed music and field recordings, building it with 2013’s Handbook for Mortals and truly settling in with this year’s masterful Shimmering Ghost. Weaving sounds, events, and arcs together in a manner both concrete and abstract, Rodman Melchior tells stories that feel real yet also evaporate before your eyes like apparitions. The album’s most stirring track, "Southern Highlands", presents a male voice telling a "sonic ghost story" over simple, moving piano, his words fading into the chords like fog melting into the ground. Tragically, Rodman Melchior passed away in September of 2014, and Shimmering Ghost serves as a strong reminder that her fantastically creative spirit remains with those of us lucky enough to experience her art. —MM

    Letha Rodman Melchior: "Edymion Mwcie" (via SoundCloud)

    Thomas Brinkmann

    What You Hear (Is What You Hear)

    Editions Mego

    8

    Thomas Brinkmann doesn’t want you to know what he thinks. On his maddening and delightful 11-track opus What You Hear (Is What You Hear), the German producer sets up distinct looping rhythmic systems and lets them run their course. Sometimes, they are slow and soft, suggesting the stillness of ambient hums. Other times, they are vivid and quick, indicative of the sweaty mess of a late-night dance floor or the oscillations of industrial-sized exhaust fans in factories. And on the short, caustic finale, the system recalls a harsh noise band, guitars howling in an infinite din of feedback. Each piece is intended as a Rorschach Test of sorts, meant to let the audience decide the source, direction and intent of the musician behind the machines. Brinkmann is in absolute control of this elaborate, immersive material. But he has no sovereignty over his, or your, response. —GC

    Thomas Brinkmann: "Agent Orange" (via SoundCloud)

    Heather Leigh

    I Abused Animal

    Ideologic Organ

    7

    That I Abused Animal is Heather Leigh’s first proper studio album seems irrelevant—she’s made many great solo records without needing a proper studio, and her music is less about polish than discovery. Yet the increased sonic clarity of I Abused Animal is important, because it matches the bracing clarity in Leigh’s laser-focused songs. Every aspect of her playing feels spiritually possessed, intently zoomed in on a single emotional target that Leigh hits repeatedly, backing her dexterous vocals with simple instrumental figures. The way her patient songs sound like both far-reaching experiments and devout hymns has little parallel; the only other work in this range would be the reverent meditations of Richard Youngs. But Leigh’s music has a power all its own. —MM

    Heather Leigh: "Fairfield Fantasy" (via SoundCloud)

    Matana Roberts

    COIN COIN Chapter Three: river run thee

    Constellation

    6

    For the first two installments of her audacious Coin Coin series, the saxophonist and singer Matana Roberts commanded impressive bands. As Roberts explored her ancestry as an African-American woman, the ensembles she’d built swung between bedlam and sophistication, jazz, and chamber music, old spirituals and new adaptations. But for river run thee, the third chapter, she decided to go it alone in the studio after a long, solitary field-recording trip through the South. She played over a tape of her recordings and then did it again and again, eventually arriving at a seamless collision of both her and the nation’s past and present. Aging American standards and individual recollections funnel into an abstract yet vividly personal exploration of time and place. These recordings position Roberts as a modern answer to Laurie Anderson, able to ask the big questions through perplexing music and guarantee that there are no easy answers. —GC

    Matana Roberts: "always say your name / nema nema nema" (via SoundCloud)

    Benoît Pioulard

    Sonnet

    Kranky

    5

    Sonnet is not a huge shift from the music Thomas Meluch has previously made under the name Benoît Pioulard—nor should it be, as his discography has been consistently stellar. But there’s a sense of purpose to the 14 tracks on Sonnet that pushes Meluch’s sound into a new stratosphere. Every moment feels focused, as if each segment of drifting ambience is blown by one unifying wind. You might have heard these sounds before, but you’ve never heard them put together this way—and given how ephemeral and transitory they feel, you might never hear them this way again, either. —MM

    Benoît Pioulard: "So Etched in Memory" (via SoundCloud)

    Byron Westbrook

    Precipice

    Root Strata

    4

    For the last decade, Byron Westbrook has built careful, site-specific sound installations with explanatory but suggestive titles—"Two Rooms on a Closed Circuit", "Landscape Conversation", "Room Within a Room". He’s also recorded and performed as Corridors. You can sense the same fascination with space and architectural systems on Precipice, Westbrook’s first work under his own name and a short but beguiling listen. These four pieces play alternately like maps of intricate interiors or scores for travelogues. The stunning 16-minute opener "Spectral Ascension" builds from the patter of a small beat into Terry Riley-like arpeggios, coming down eventually into a calming, restive drone, as if soundtracking a journey into enlightenment—and the slow drift back into reality. —GC

    Byron Westbrook: "Spectral Ascension (Edit)" (via SoundCloud)

    Duane Pitre

    Bayou Electric

    Important

    3

    Experimental music tends to deal with process more than place, but Duane Pitre’s Bayou Electric perfectly points to the area from which its title and sounds comes. The New Orleans composer, sound artist and guitarist captured field recordings on a stretch of Louisiana land his family has owned for nearly a century, and then built a tidal drone around it. The result is transfixing, so that a symphony of cicadas sings in unison through an electronic glow that suggests a setting sun or oppressive Deep South humidity. It is an environmental album, not only in the sense that it suggests its surroundings but also in the way you can sit still and be content with it, listening intently for 48 minutes while the scene around you slowly shifts. —GC

    Duane Pitre: "Bayou Electric (Excerpt)" (via SoundCloud)

    Joshua Abrams

    Magnetoception

    Eremite

    2

    As Joshua Abrams explained to us earlier this year, Magnetoception was the result of a challenge he took upon himself: to see what his ensemble Natural Information Society could do with longer, more gradually developing songs. The concept may seem like overkill—Abrams already made very patient music—but in execution it turned out to be glorious. Stretching out his elemental loops, Abrams discovers new levels of mood and tone; his pieces seem to escape time completely. His comrades lock directly into that meditative mindset, wrapping wiry guitar, rotating percussion, and other accenting elements around the hypnotic cycles of Abrams’ Moroccan lute known as the guimbri. The result is a perfection of Abrams’ sound, a magnification of his bandmates’ talents, and an inflation of his ideas into a realm beyond musical space-time. That may sound lofty, but Magenetoception deserves all the superlatives it inspires. —MM

    Joshua Abrams: "Translucent"

    Tom Carter

    Long Time Underground

    Three Lobed / Divide By Zero

    1

    As American psychedelic music goes, Tom Carter is a modern titan. From his pensive folk manipulations with Charalambides to his noise sprees with Mudsuckers, and from his jams with Bardo Pond and Badgerlore to his own albums of individual ascendance, Carter has long shown the transcendence of exploration, of taking a familiar form farther than one assumed possible. Given his résumé, then, it’s surprising that Carter has never clocked into a studio by himself and clocked out with a proper solo guitar album.

    He must have been waiting to make a masterpiece: Long Time Underground, his seven-song cycle through riffs that rise into unexpected shapes and take on unforeseen timbres, is a remarkable display of just how far six strings can go with no overdubs and one take. "Carvedilol Cowboy" starts as a somber instrumental strummer but ends as an acid-wrenched stunner. "Into the Out" begins as a gentle purr of amplifier but, 13 minutes later, becomes a wall of noise, melody flickering inside like a candle flame trapped in a gale. Carter alternately sounds like he’s playing bagpipe, a synthesizer, a full rock band or an army of guitars. But when Long Time Underground ends with the beautiful "Colors for N", you realize again that it is only the sound of one of the most thoughtful, imaginative instrumentalists working today, harnessed at last in proper, perfect fashion. —GC

    Tom Carter: "Entreaertne" (via SoundCloud)


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    Staff Lists: The Year in Rap 2015

    Breaking down Drake’s two 2015 rap wars—the hot one with Meek Mill and the cold one with Kendrick Lamar—and how his flouting of traditional hip-hop ethics runs parallel to our era of nihilist-flavored capitalism


    I. How a Meme Could Just Kill a Man

    At this year’s OVO Fest in Toronto, the guillotine gleamed as it slashed Meek Mill’s jugular. Like a Roman emperor in a Raptors jersey, Drake flexed his biceps and flashed the thumbs down before his rabid followers. But in this modern Coliseum, Whataburger played the executioner.

    Behind Aubrey Graham, a large-screen projection taunted with the fast food emporium’s tweet. It was like watching a soccer match decided by a penalty kick from a drunk CFO whose corporation had won naming rights to the stadium.

    Flanked by fake explosions, Drake rapped “Back 2 Back”, a diss primarily remarkable for its marketing and method of delivery. His PowerPoint also featured an image of Meek Mill sticking a fork into an electric socket, multiple “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” reaction shots, along with memes based on “The Simpsons”, Friday, and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”. Another picture depicted pallbearers carrying a coffin with the caption: “Meek Mill checked out of his hotel this morning.” The most galling (and corny) showed Meek in a white wedding dress alongside a tuxedoed Nicki Minaj. With this endless scroll of meme propaganda, Drake intended to shock and awe New York radio trolls, sixth grade cyber-bullies, and the type of rap fan that responds in the Genius comment section with GIFs from “The Office”.

    It worked perfectly. Such online ephemera flattered the vanity of Twitter users by appropriating their vernacular. Drake received credit for being #relevant enough to understand the basic fundamentals of how the Internet works. But really, he just crowdsourced his comeback—a similar violation to what led Meek Mill to test him in the first place. 

    II. You Oughta Know

    If you missed the specifics of the blood vendetta that erupted last July, it started when Drake declined to publicly support Meek Mill’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, which sold nearly 250,000 copies in its first week. Those might not be Drake numbers, but the figure is nearly double what the next highest-selling street rap album of 2015, Future’s DS2, opened with, and five times the first-week tally of the last album from Meek's own MMG boss, Rick Ross. Meek rightfully interpreted this triumph as a validation of what he stands for. After all, his biography reads neatly antithetical to Drake’s, a revamped 8 Mile set in the city of Rocky, a narrative that not one journalist has failed to describe as “gritty.”

    A toddler when his father was murdered, Meek grew up amidst bleak Philadelphia poverty and a high crime rate. He eventually met his uncle, the legendary local DJ pioneer Grandmaster Nell, who mentored him early. All the classicist rap tropes are there: Philly street rap battles, blood lineage, endless cyphers, notebooks where words are rhymed past the margins.

    Since dropping the Flamerz mixtape series that won him regional fame in the late 2000s, Meek’s been incarcerated multiple times, grappled with the slaying of his teen protégé Lil Snupe, and yelped frantic hard-boiled rap songs to inspire those trapped in the cycle that once ensnared him. 

    On the other hand, Drake is Drake. You’ve seen “Degrassi” and his bar mitzvah video. You get the gist. 

    Of course, dualities are never perfect. Even if Meek Mill believes himself to be the model of authenticity, his patron is a former corrections officer and his albums are scattered with lame commercial compromises. But he exists as an extension of traditional covenants—the code of the streets and the hip-hop culture he was raised on. So after receiving word that Drake spit ghostwritten bars on their More Than Money collaboration “R.I.C.O.”, Meek went in on Twitter. Theoretically, his jab was not very different from when Nicki Minaj ripped Iggy Azalea for using ghostwriters at the 2014 BET Awards.

    Except Drake refused to get Azalea’d. As Funkmaster Flex leaked the Quentin Miller-penned reference tracks for “10 Bands” and “Know Yourself”, the Canadian went nuclear, as softly as possible. His first diss, “Charged Up”, used a fully charged iPhone as its cover, hardware from the same corporation that signed him to a collaborative deal in the spring. He dropped the song on his OVO Beats 1 show to make it a commercial within a commercial. To paraphrase Vince Staples, it was the first rap diss that could ever be played on an easy listening station.

    What happened next remains one of the most perplexing fails in rap history. Meek sniped that “Charged Up” was baby lotion soft and that you could tell that Drake wrote it. Then he Instagrammed a photo of himself endorsing fluorescent dental gel, tweeted the letter “Z,” and dropped “Wanna Know”, a response only worthwhile for revealing that one of T.I.’s friends once peed on Drake in a movie theater.

    Meek’s response was so categorically botched you would’ve thought it was handled by FEMA. It was like he lit a blunt and accidentally burned down his house. Yet its universal dismissal went deeper than just clowning a bad rap song; “Wanna Know” was a fatal miscalculation of the way the Internet and commercial rap music currently work. From the Funkmaster Flex bombs to the Festivus-ian airing of grievances, Meek wrongly believed that he could annihilate his rival by simply highlighting Drake’s cultural felonies.

    Meek Mill: "Wanna Know" (via SoundCloud)

    But Drake flouts hip-hop ethics that often seem anachronistic in a constantly accelerating world of nihilist-flavored capitalism. He uses hip-hop “authenticity” when convenient: the Hot 97 “freestyle” where he reads the lyrics off his Blackberry; the Sprite lyrics campaign with Rakim, where he’s quoted as being on a “mission trying to change the culture.” As though “culture” could be singular in 2015. As though his “mission” involved more than just expanding the lane that Kanye left him while fostering a collective acceptance of $3,000 turtlenecks that look like they’re from T.J. Maxx.

    Meek Mill failed to grasp that most Drake fans never took their hero at face value in the first place. No one actually believed that Wheelchair Jimmy was catching bodies. If Meek Mill lives by the rules of “Stop Snitching,” Drake’s fans blew up the prosecutor of Meek’s probation violation case, begging her to arrest him. Drake makes music for Instagram captions, music that only understands consequences as a plot device. Drake possesses the requisite cache of irony and self-awareness required to thrive in an era where viral content is synonymous with quality. He’s the cleverest of the basic bros, more algorithm than artist, the logical endpoint of one-percent economics constantly engulfing new markets in order to grow. 

    It was going to take more than calling out the creative integrity of a guy whose credo is “all I care about is money and the city where I’m from.” If Kanye is rap’s Steve Jobs, Drake is the CEO of Snapchat. So when he followed up the Golden Owl Massacre of 2015 with the “Hotline Bling” video, Drake achieved that final state of technological singularity: When man becomes meme.

    III. http://giphy.com/search/drake-laughing

    Look at this photo. That’s not just Drake, Philadelphia’s own Fresh Prince, and Kanye West cackling; it’s a world conspiring against you. Snapped after OVO Fest, it circulated so widely that it probably appeared in a Better Homes and Gardens slideshow. A subsequent video almost certainly confirmed that they were all mocking Meek Mill.

    It didn’t matter that “Back 2 Back” is maybe the 132nd Best Diss in Hip-Hop History. Or that Sauce Walka of Houston rap duo the Sauce Twinz later dismantled Drake with his own retort, “Wack 2 Wack”, the best diss since “Ether”. That track has a million streams on SoundCloud alone, though you probably didn’t hear about it because most press parroted the OVO Inc. spin that it was the work of a “hater” mad at Drake for reneging on a promise to remix a regional hit. (Naturally, Meek Mill released a song with Sauce Walka about a month ago, but by then, it already seemed too late.)

    Sauce Walka: "Wack 2 Wack" (via SoundCloud)

    Drake’s whole campaign amounted to a masterclass on how to win a modern propaganda war. By timing it to OVO Fest, Drake was able to win implied co-signs from the other performers including Future, Pharrell, YG, J. Cole, Big Sean, and Kanye. The latter came up onstage and told everyone that Drake was one of his idols—essentially, a passing of the torch.

    Even if it’s unclear what type of gas is in that torch, it’s obvious that the night marked a periodic conflagration, a shakeout of a new order, a better understanding of what is freshly acceptable. Since the millennium, there have been at least a half-dozen of these schisms: When the Roots backed Jay Z on “Unplugged”, the rise of Atlanta and the South, when Kanye beat 50 in their head-to-head bout, the emergence of Odd Future and Lil B, and when Rick Ross survived The Smoking Gun and 50 Cent’s revelation that “Officer Ricky” was too familiar with the sounds of the police.

    With Ross, there was always an undercurrent of absurdity to his boasts. Almost no one believed that he scooped “Emmy winners like kitty litter” or that he was the biggest cocaine don on the Atlantic coast. But unless he also employed ghostwriters (likely), there was the understanding that there was a spark of originality to the delusional Scarface meets The Phantom Tollbooth fantasies that he cooked up in his head. 

    Legendary rappers have used ghostwriters and co-writers for a long time, but Drake’s the one to get caught. That’s doesn’t change his ingenious streak for branding and talent as an entertainer. Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Morris Day wrote few of their songs, and it doesn’t detract from their body of work. Same with Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and, to a different extent, Kanye. It’s fine to outsource your ideas, just be honest in the artifice.

    Before he drowned himself in dental paste, Meek Mill said, “I don’t lie to my fans.” It’s easy to dismiss that as some “real hip-hop,” true school, four elements fanute, but that’s a large part of what the culture was built on. For hip-hop to continue to stand for anything, it has to retain certain core values. Genre lines in 2015 might be totally arbitrary, but originality remains a timeless imperative.

    Regardless of region or era, evolutionary leaps happen because of those with a wild style—the combination of creativity, fearlessness, and virtuosity that forces the competition to play catch up. Young Thug can rap with brilliant weightlessness and turn Atlanta into a psychedelic Macondo, but old heads will still wrongly discount him because he wears dresses for the same reason Kurt Cobain did. Without leaving Long Beach, Vince Staples found a way to thread the needle between Ice Cube and Ian Curtis. Earl Sweatshirt barely left his bedroom and created the most enjoyable agoraphobia you’ll hear all year. They’re all vastly different artists, but they’re united by how unthinkable it is that anyone could write for them.

    IV. Rich Off Stealing Flavor

    How can you be one of the greatest rappers ever if no one can tell when your lyrics aren’t really you? Can you be King when your rhymes are essentially Sad Libs? This is what Meek gestured at but couldn’t properly convey; it’s also at the core of Kendrick Lamar’s Cold War with Drake.

    Even though Meek was the first to specifically call out Drake by name, Kendrick’s been locked in a battle of subliminals with him since “Control” in 2013. In this year alone, Lamar used Dr. Dre’s first album in a decade and a half to lob cruise missiles at the “soft rapper tucked into his pajama pants.” On Compton’s “Darkside/Gone”, he raps, “Got enemies giving me energy I wanna fight now/ Subliminally sent to me all of this hate,” while “Deepwater” kicks off with “started from the bottom” and ends with “what’s beef” talk. 

    On To Pimp a Butterfly’s “King Kunta”, Kendrick taunts an unnamed “rapper with a ghostwriter” because that idea runs counter to his goals as an artist: constructing his own stylized labyrinth of personal visions, neighborhood wars, and complex socio-political ideas—the stuff that Quentin Miller can’t help you with. 

    Drake and Kendrick are natural antagonists, heirs to the rivalry between Jay Z and Nas: the flashy Gatsby versus the cerebral monk. Lamar firmly grounds himself in Compton, grappling with racist stereotypes, internecine gang violence, brutal police, and self-loathing. Drake sulks blissfully above the clouds. His Toronto is a flag to drape himself in—the city as CGI, a vague cold region where the strippers are virgins to him and where Travis $cott comes to visit and stays for way too long. And if Jay Z pioneered the art of siphoning new flows and slang from young artists, Drake perfected it.

    As To Pimp a Butterfly attempts a sonic and spiritual séance with the past to explore the crises of today, Drake asks you pay $10 for his “mixtape.” Kendrick’s “Alright” became the de facto anthem for Black Lives Matter; your mom did the “Hotline Bling” dance at Christmas.

    But it’s more than a simple dialectic between art and commerce. Kendrick’s appearance on Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” remix mars any notion of false purity; Drake has surely written a sincere song or two that doesn’t try to turn a Hooters waitress into Helen of Troy. They’re ultimately wrestling for the throne of an art form with plenty of room for both to co-exist. 

    With its bold-name lineup, that July night at OVO Fest could have doubled as a tribute to all the artists that Drake has stolen from: So Far Gone doubles as an 808s & Heartbreak karaoke album from a melancholy high school drama club Hamlet; hashtag rap came from Big Sean; “The Motto” is probably the best song that YG and Mustard never did; he got his roadman slang from Skepta; and his subsequent collaborative album with Future, What a Time to Be Alive, plays out like 56 Nights fan fiction.

    There’s a line from What a Time where Drake raps, “Live from the gutter, I will buy this motherfucker.” For a flash, he reveals the voice of a real estate tycoon seeking to gentrify a working-class block into condos, doggy daycares, and the sort of stainless steel coffee shops where Kendrick might appear directly after Drake on the barista’s Spotify playlist. Yet as opulent self-mythology streams into the struggle, mirroring our own constant contradictions, we’re still reminded that there will always be codes corporations can’t understand and places where memes will never matter. 


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    Interviews: Animal Collective’s Primitive Future

    The three members of Animal Collective are squeezed into a Skype frame when I ask them about their favorite dinosaurs. Dave “Avey Tare” Portner’s answer is instant: the Ankylosaurus, a nasty-looking quadrupedal with dozens of spikes stuck to its back. Brian “Geologist” Weitz settles on the Parasaurolophus, a horned herbivore. Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox stays silent. It feels silly to push the issue.

    Dinosaurs are integral to next month’s Painting With, the band’s first new record in nearly four years. It was recorded at Los Angeles’ EastWest Studios, where no shortage of savants—including the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, and Michael Jackson—have made some of their most memorable music. Unsurprisingly, Animal Collective found a way to put their own twist on the hallowed locale. They brought in a baby pool. They dimmed the lights and lit candles. And they projected dinosaurs onto the walls, creating what Portner calls a “prehistoric” vibe, whirling the group millions of years into the past. “It started to mess with me a little bit,” admits Weitz, noting that the band pulled 12 hour days for more than a month; after a week of the intense schedule and setting, he began allotting 20 minutes a day to go outside and see the sun.

    They visualized the album as what Weitz calls “an electronic drum circle,” resulting in the loosest Animal Collective record in years. They eschewed slow jams for a set of songs inspired by more elemental pleasures: early Beatles, early Ramones, and Tin Pan Alley-era songwriters—artists who could make a lot happen in a short amount of time. Painting With was their first album recorded in the sprawling, car-oriented metropolis of L.A., where they found it easy to stay isolated in their own creative environment. Another first: They created the album without performing any of its songs in concert beforehand.

    Painting With was made without sometime member Josh “Deakin” Dibb, who took time off from the band to focus on his own music, but the trio did bring in Colin Stetson, a multi-instrumentalist who’s worked with Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, and Tom Waits, as well as Velvet Underground co-founder and experimental rock icon John Cale. Stetson contributed to “FloriDada,” the free-spirited first single, while Cale recorded droning noises on “Hocus Pocus” that sound like primordial ooze bubbling over the pot.

    The record features some of Animal Collective’s knottiest and darkest lyrics to date, ranging from commentary on the war in Ukraine to a song about recycling that makes it sound like the apocalypse is nigh. Even so, they’re not without jokes. “Golden Gal” opens up with a familiar sample of dialogue from “Golden Girls” before morphing into a meditation on gender politics; the classic TV nod offers a lifesaver in a shaky sea, something the band has always been happy to loan. Meanwhile, on “Hocus Pocus,” one couplet smartly encapsulates the entire 17-years-and-counting Animal Collective mission at large: “Wander from the cynical/ Take a look at views atypical.”

    The three different album covers for Animal Collective's Painting With by Brian DeGraw.

    Pitchfork: The album was influenced by cave paintings and dinosaurs. How did that originate as a starting point?

    Avey Tare: It started coming up after we got together in Asheville, North Carolina, where we did some jams and improvisations and began putting all the pieces together. We’d sit around this little fire thing outside and talk about how the music and the sounds were reminding us of something very prehistoric, like a rough painting with paint splattering everywhere. And the rhythms were very caveman-y to us. 

    Panda Bear: We talked about cave people before we wrote any music—something crude and basic and thudding and aggressive. The dinosaurs and the jungle came afterwards.

    Geologist: In terms of that primitive style and certain tribal rhythms, you could almost rewind to what people have said about us—or what we said about ourselves—15 years ago. Each formation of Animal Collective relates to itself in a different way. When the three of us started improvising together in our New York apartments in 2000, the music always had that stripped-down, primitive aspect to it rhythmically. It’s sort of returning to how we related to each other a long time ago.

    Pitchfork: When you are thinking of ways to challenge yourselves, do feel the need to push against preconceptions people may have about Animal Collective at this point?

    G: I wouldn’t say push against what other people think but we do push against our own things that we’ve done too much and don’t find exciting anymore. For example, the vocal arrangements are pretty crucial to the sound of this record, and reverb wouldn’t have helped those at all, so we stayed away from it. Of course, you’re aware of people’s conceptions too. When we did a screening tour for [2010 visual album] ODDSAC, fans would always ask us, “Why did you make something so dark and aggressive? Is this a middle finger to the people that like ‘My Girls’ and Merriweather Post Pavilion?” And we were like, “No, this is just a different side and that thought never entered our heads whatsoever.” 

    AT: People might judge “the weird Animal Collective sound,” but there is a heart that is Animal Collective in all our records. That’s something we’re proud of. It makes us feel good when we play a record for a friend, and they’re like, “Well, it sounds like an Animal Collective record.” We want to have our own sound, and we understand that it’s for some people and not others.

    Photo by Hisham Akira Bharoocha/Abby Portner

    Pitchfork: After recording separately for other projects, is it easy to pick things up together?

    G: Not every time, but for this one it was. I don’t know if that’s dependent on our dynamic as much as the circumstances we set up for ourselves. Coming back for Centipede Hz was difficult. It was a super emotional time. Because of the way we set the making of that album up, taking us all to Baltimore, the unsettled nature came out on the record. It was just a very different process from the more easy going one that Merriweather had been. The thing about Centipede Hz that also made the recording difficult was how we wrote it for the stage and, before recording, we did a handful of tours where we each had different monitor mixes onstage. So some of us got set ideas about what songs should sound like and where certain parts should fit in. Then, when we went to ooze all four of those different perspectives together—there weren’t battles, but it did lead to a lot of things staying in the mix. 

    Pitchfork: Did that lead to the decision to not work this new album out by touring?

    G: A little bit. For this album, our challenge was to show up with nothing and write together through jamming. We thought it would be cool to do it this way because we’ve never really done it before and because it worked out in terms of what each of us had going on in our lives. We couldn’t just jump back on the road, so we felt this would be a less stressful way to get things done.

    Pitchfork: “FloriDada” expresses this Whitman-like fondness for America. What are your feelings on the state of the country right now?

    AT: With that song, I was reacting to the negativity and separatist attitude. We’re all living in different states and we all have different systems within those states. Even on the most basic personal level, it affects me. I heard a radio show in L.A. and they started talking about how the name of the program was “What All the Dumb Things People Are Doing in Florida Right Now.” I was just like, “That sucks. Why does everything have to be so negative? Why is everything so ‘I’m from the South, you’re from the North?’” I’m not against being proud of where you come from but I feel like sometimes the divisions are a little too bold and it hurts us more than it helps us.

    Pitchfork: Nearly two decades into your career as Animal Collective, do you still have that egotistical thing going on where you feel like you have something to prove to people?

    G: This just might be the dad in me, but it’s hard for me to ever feel comfortable and established. Life is long and there are so many times you have to prove yourself.

    PB: The challenge of trying to excite yourself about something new is like the juice for me—it’s more about just enjoying the process of searching and making new stuff.

    AT: Yeah, it’s just the fun that we have making music together. Music is so vast and there’s so much that we haven’t explored. I feel like that’s another driving thing for us, like: What’s out there that we can pull from and bring together next—and how can we challenge ourselves to make it something that’s very Animal Collective?


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    Staff Lists: Readers' Poll Results 2015

    The Pitchfork Readers' Poll features your picks for the best (and worst) in the world of music. Below, you'll find the results, including your choices for Top Albums and Top Tracks, along with Most Underrated and Overrated Albums, Best New Artists, Best Musician Twitters, and Best Live Acts, plus your answers to a number of either/or questions.


    Top 50 Albums

    1. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly
    2. Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell
    3. Tame Impala: Currents
    4. Jamie xx: In Colour
    5. Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear
    6. Grimes: Art Angels
    7. Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
    8. Beach House: Depression Cherry
    9. Vince Staples: Summertime '06
    10. Joanna Newsom: Divers
    11. Drake: If You're Reading This It's Too Late
    12. Björk: Vulnicura
    13. Julia Holter: Have You in My Wilderness
    14. Deerhunter: Fading Frontier
    15. Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love
    16. Deafheaven: New Bermuda
    17. Kurt Vile: b'lieve i'm goin down
    18. Viet Cong: Viet Cong
    19. Panda Bear: Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
    20. Oneohtrix Point Never: Garden of Delete
    21. Neon Indian: VEGA INTL. Night School
    22. Kamasi Washington: The Epic
    23. Carly Rae Jepsen: E•MO•TION
    24. Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color
    25. Beach House: Thank Your Lucky Stars
    26. Chvrches: Every Open Eye
    27. FKA twigs: M3LL155X
    28. Death Grips: Jenny Death
    29. Earl Sweatshirt: I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside
    30. Miguel: Wildheart
    31. Mac DeMarco: Another One
    32. Justin Bieber: Purpose
    33. Unknown Mortal Orchestra: Multi-Love
    34. Future: Dirty Sprite 2
    35. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment: Surf
    36. Destroyer: Poison Season
    37. Tobias Jesso Jr.: Goon
    38. Titus Andronicus: The Most Lamentable Tragedy
    39. Hop Along: Painted Shut
    40. A$AP Rocky: At.Long.Last.A$AP
    41. Young Thug: Barter 6
    42. Florence and the Machine: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
    43. The Weeknd: Beauty Behind the Madness
    44. Lana Del Rey: Honeymoon
    45. Blur: The Magic Whip
    46. Wilco: Star Wars
    47. Dr. Dre: Compton
    48. Natalie Prass: Natalie Prass
    49. Waxahatchee: Ivy Tripp
    50. Protomartyr: The Agent Intellect


    Most Underrated Album

    1. Carly Rae Jepsen: E•MO•TION
    2. Destroyer: Poison Season
    3. Unknown Mortal Orchestra: Multi-Love
    4. Beach House: Thank Your Lucky Stars
    5. Earl Sweatshirt: I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside
    6. Travis Scott: Rodeo
    7. Hop Along: Painted Shut
    8. Vince Staples: Summertime '06
    9. Sun Kil Moon: Universal Themes
    10. EL VY: Return to the Moon


    Most Overrated Album

    1. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly
    2. Adele: 25
    3. Grimes: Art Angels
    4. Tame Impala: Currents
    5. Drake: If You're Reading This It's Too Late
    6. Jamie xx: In Colour
    7. Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear
    8. Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell
    9. Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
    10. The Weeknd: Beauty Behind the Madness


    Top 50 Songs

    1. Tame Impala: "Let It Happen"
    2. Kendrick Lamar: "Alright"
    3. Kendrick Lamar: "King Kunta"
    4. Jamie xx: "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)" [ft. Young Thug and Popcaan]
    5. Drake: "Hotline Bling"
    6. Sufjan Stevens: "Should Have Known Better"
    7. Grimes: "Realiti"
    8. Jamie xx: "Loud Places" [ft. Romy]
    9. Grimes: "Flesh Without Blood"
    10. Kendrick Lamar: "The Blacker the Berry"
    11. Courtney Barnett: "Pedestrian at Best"
    12. Beach House: "Sparks"
    13. Kurt Vile: "Pretty Pimpin'"
    14. Courtney Barnett: "Depreston"
    15. Tame Impala: "Eventually"
    16. Sufjan Stevens: "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross"
    17. Jamie xx: "Gosh"
    18. The Weeknd: "Can't Feel My Face"
    19. FKA twigs: "in time"
    20. Tame Impala: "'Cause I'm a Man"
    21. Kanye West: "All Day" [ft. Allan Kingdom, Theophilus London, and Paul McCartney]
    22. Joanna Newsom: "Sapokanikan"
    23. Jidenna: "Classic Man"
    24. Deerhunter: "Breaker"
    25. Death Grips: "On GP"
    26. Chvrches: "Leave a Trace"
    27. Jack Ü: "Where Are Ü Now" [ft. Justin Bieber]
    28. Neon Indian: "Slumlord"
    29. Julia Holter: "Feel You"
    30. Grimes: "Venus Fly" [ft. Janelle Monáe]
    31. Deerhunter: "Snakeskin"
    32. Tame Impala: "The Less I Know the Better"
    33. Vince Staples: "Señorita"
    34. David Bowie: "Blackstar"
    35. Beach House: "Elegy to the Void"
    36. Thundercat: "Them Changes"
    37. Unknown Mortal Orchestra: "Multi-Love"
    38. Carly Rae Jepsen: "All That"
    39. Titus Andronicus: "Dimed Out"
    40. Miguel: "Coffee"
    41. Deafheaven: "Brought to the Water"
    42. Unknown Mortal Orchestra: "Can't Keep Checking My Phone"
    43. Grimes: "Kill v. Maim"
    44. Joanna Newsom: "Leaving the City"
    45. Neon Indian: "Annie"
    46. Earl Sweatshirt: "Grief"
    47. Sufjan Stevens: "Fourth of July"
    48. Drake: "Energy"
    49. Chance the Rapper: "Angels" [ft. Saba]
    50. Tobias Jesso Jr.: "How Could You Babe"

    Best New Artist

    1. Courtney Barnett
    2. Vince Staples
    3. Viet Cong
    4. Tobias Jesso Jr.
    5. Shamir
    6. Natalie Prass
    7. Fetty Wap
    8. Jamie xx
    9. Kamasi Washington
    10. Empress Of

    Photo by Emmanuel Afolabi
    Best Live Act

    1. Sufjan Stevens
    2. Tame Impala
    3. Father John Misty
    4. Run the Jewels
    5. Kendrick Lamar
    6. Death Grips
    7. Sleater-Kinney
    8. Mac DeMarco
    9. Beach House
    10. Kanye West


    Best Musician Twitter

    1. Ezra Koenig (@arzE)
    2. Kanye West (@kanyewest)
    3. Vince Staples (@vincestaples)
    4. Grimes (@Grimezsz)
    5. Father John Misty (@fatherjohnmisty)
    6. El-P (@therealelp)
    7. Lil B (@LILBTHEBASEDGOD)
    8. Tyler, the Creator (@fucktyler)
    9. Perfume Genius (@perfumegenius)
    10. Phil Elverum (@PWElverum)

    Taylor Swift's 1989 vs Ryan Adams' 1989


    Rihanna's Instagram vs Rihanna's new songs?


    Dabbing vs Hitting the Quan


    Should Weezer just go ahead and quit already?

    The Black Keys vs Jack White


    Nicki Minaj vs Miley Cyrus


    Future's Hat vs Pharrell's Hat


    Drake vs Meek Mill


    Lil B vs God


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    Interviews: Tinashe’s World Domination Plan

    In Tinashe’s childhood bedroom in Los Angeles—where she still lives with her parents—the 22-year-old has a makeshift motivation wall set up. It includes some familiar tokens, including dance trophies she won as a kid and pictures of her friends growing up. But below those is a more exclusive keepsake: a platinum plaque for “2 On,” the de facto turn-up anthem of 2014 that launched the onetime child actor headfirst into the R&B spotlight. That song, and the rest of her sensuously murky, self-assured major label debut Aquarius, proved that Tinashe has always had something bigger in mind when it comes to long-term goals, something that began when she taught herself Ableton via YouTube tutorials in that same bedroom three years ago. Looking toward the February release of her second album, Joyride, she says, “I hope it’s a huge step toward world domination.” She’s only half joking.

    And such pop ambitions are not totally irrational for someone like Tinashe, who has been toiling at various levels of the music industry for nearly a decade, building up a unique sound and style that flourished on heady mixtapes like Black Water and Amethyst. Last summer, she nabbed opening spots on two massive tours from Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry, bringing her physically-demanding live show to international audiences while proving that those early dance trophies were no fluke. Her recent Joyride singles, “Party Favors” and “Player,” have racked up more than 20 million views on YouTube, though neither has cracked Billboard’s Hot 100.

    Where Aquarius was limned with spoken-word interludes and other traces of the intimate, lo-fi mixtapes on which Tinashe made her name, Joyride sounds and feels like the HD upgrade. The album is meant to reflect the massive life changes that Tinashe has undergone since hits like “2 On” and “All Hands on Deck” put her on the map, and finds her collaborating with pop titans like Max Martin and Dr. Luke as well as R&B/hip-hop loyalists Boi-1da and Mike WiLL Made-It. “I feel like I’ve grown a lot this past year,” she explains. “Every time I reach a milestone I get really excited, but I always have so much more that I’m looking to do.”

    Keeping up with that voracious attitude toward creating music is part of what makes being a Tinashe fan so exciting: For every radio banger like the Chris Brown-featuring “Player,” there’s something like “Touch Pass,” a hushed Joyride cut that evokes Velvet Rope-era Janet Jackson applied to the Tinder age. “Party Favors,” meanwhile, with its groggy, drug-addled swagger, showcases the singer’s penchant for the dark, depraved edges that line pop music. “I’ve always been attracted to that juxtaposition between lightness and darkness, and being able to play in both worlds,” she explains. “Especially with my voice being so bright, I like to be able to balance that out with some darkness in the music.” 

    Some new songs show that the bedroom sensibility that made her mixtapes and Aquarius successful is still present on Joyride, even as Tinashe pushes her sound in arena-filling directions. Still, does creating a more universal bid for quintessential stardom come at the cost of what made her so unique in the first place? If so, this artist does not seem worried about it. "I genuinely enjoy being undefinable and living in the gray area—I don't like to be black or white," she says. "That's what life is about: always changing and evolving and growing and progressing. Not just staying the same."

    Pitchfork: How do you feel you’ve changed as a person since Aquarius? Was there anything you did on that record that you wanted to change going forward?

    Tinashe: I wanted to keep a similar essence to what I’ve always done and for there to be songs that feel like I did them alone in my room—I recorded some songs that way—but I also want to show people that I’ve expanded my sound as well. I definitely learned a lot about how different cultures interpret music from visiting Japan, Europe, and South America, and that’s been a big inspiration on my live performance and the way I dress and everything.

    Pitchfork: You’ve mentioned that you’re often boxed into narrow-minded, appearance-based judgments. Do you read your own criticism or let it affect you at all?

    T: Sometimes I do, only because I’m human and things get to you. But I try to not let those things bother me because I know at the end of the day I’m not gonna stop. People can underestimate and doubt me all they want, but there isn’t any sense of true discouragement in what I’m doing at the end of the day. I’m going to continue to make the music that I love, create art, and perform. I just hope that along the way people will take the time to get to know me more and open their eyes to the depth that I have as an artist and stop looking at me so shallowly.

    Pitchfork: How do you think Joyride will help people understand you?

    T: It will inspire people to learn that I’m not so easily defined. The music can sometimes feel like it lives in multiple genres, and that’s what I really love about it. Hopefully people will understand I’m not just one type of person, artist, genre, any of the above.

    Some songs on the album are definitely more pop-leaning than stuff that I’ve done in the past, which I don’t think is a bad thing—I am a well-rounded artist and entertainer. It’s obviously a little daunting at first, because you just don’t know how people are going to react. You just have to hope that people understand that there are different sides to who I am as a person and an artist.

    Pitchfork: You’ve grown up in the industry in a way, and it’s interesting to chart your progression as a person through your music as well. 

    T: Yeah, absolutely. People have really been able to watch my career from the very beginning, and I’ve been so out in the open the past few years, ever since I was a teenager starting to create my own music in my room to the success I’ve achieved now, and it’s really cool to have fans that are able to experience that with me through social media, blogs, and all the ways I’m able to connect with them. We’re able to grow up together.


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  • 01/07/16--07:25: 5-10-15-20: Corin Tucker
  • 5-10-15-20: Corin Tucker

    5-10-15-20 features people talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. This podcast edition features Jenn Pelly in conversation with 43-year-old Sleater-Kinney co-founder Corin Tucker. The interview took place at the Soho House Chicago in July, right before Sleater-Kinney’s headlining set at the Pitchfork Music Festival. During the hour-long chat, Tucker talked about growing up in the Olympia punk scene, skipping prom to see Fugazi, loving (and then collaborating with) R.E.M., being inspired by Beyoncé, and more. Stream or download below:

    Corin Tucker: Pitchfork Podcast Interview


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