2015 in Review: PMA Staff Favorites

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PMA writers offer some closing statements to our recap of 2015. Revisit our favorite albums and favorite songs of 2015.

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Austin Reed

When you talk about music in 2015, you almost reflexively bring up Kendrick Lamar. It was Kendrick’s year, man; To Pimp a Butterfly ascended to heights untouchable by everything except The Chronic, because it satisfactorily blended fact and fairytale. It was a serious—often macabre—manifesto crafted with words, rhythm and tone that almost make sense on a primal level. And that sensibility appealed to everyone. No artist in 2015 enjoyed mass appreciation and respect quite like Kendrick did.

What I say next will sound aloof and cynical because it implies that I think Kendrick is overrated. I don’t think Kendrick is overrated. I happen to think he’s dramatically underrated for reasons this country is afraid to address. But none of this is really the point. The point is this: It’s impossible to compete against a record as culturally significant as Butterfly. Is it a truly brilliant album? Of course it is, because Kendrick Lamar is a truly brilliant artist. But when being virtuosic and being relevant coincide, good luck paying attention to anything else.

That’s why I wanted to try taking Kendrick Lamar and To Pimp a Butterfly at face value, if that’s even a thing. I wanted to assume that all things were equal and nothing weighed more or less because of any particular outlier. This was stupid, and I know that now, but honestly, it did me some serious good from the standpoint of forced objectivity. And would you look at that? K-Dot still fared pretty damned well. I ranked Vince Staples’ incendiary debut LP Summertime ’06 one spot above Butterfly, but these albums are interchangeable on the hip-hop front. Both records banged.

That said, no one who stood in Clare Boucher’s way could even offer a fair fight against the perfectly strange Art Angels, Grimes’ fourth LP. Boucher never skips on an opportunity to do something totally weird, but Angels is weird in a new way. It’s aware of itself. It’s cognizant of how flighty popularity can be, so it invents popularity on its own terms. It’s relatable, and for that reason, it wins like no other Grimes record can or like no other album in 2015 did.

There was a time, however, when Tame Impala had released the best album of the year. Unfortunately, Art Angels late-October arrival signaled a changing of the guard, and Currents got knocked from the top spot permanently. Still, Currents is nearly flawless, capturing every foot forward Kevin Parker has made as an artist since Impala’s debut LP Innerspeaker.

Honestly, I’ve only scratched the surface here. Phantogram and Big Boi made beautiful music together. Earl Sweatshirt got gloomier and it was still somehow better than any of his shit prior. Marcus Marr and Chairlift delivered superb tracks that almost didn’t make the cutoff date. R&B got a darkwave haircut with a little help from Nao, Kelela and FKA Twigs. Sufjan Stevens got better by just bein’ himself. And Shamir laid waste by spitting bars on bars of #realtalk.

All of this happened at the same time as or even after Butterfly, which just goes to show: The fact that certain music doesn’t stand against America’s shit du jour doesn’t automatically make it inferior. It’s a matter of focus. And as sweeping generalizations go, 2015 was a hell of a year to focus on everything (anything) good. Enjoy, because I certainly am. Below are the albums and tracks that, to me, captured the goodness of life.

Favorite Albums

  1. Grimes, Art Angels
  2. Tame Impala, Currents
  3. Jamie xx, In Colour
  4. Vince Staples, Summertime ‘06
  5. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly
  6. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell
  7. Neon Indian, VEGA Intl. Night School
  8. My Morning Jacket, The Waterfall
  9. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear
  10. Miguel, WILDHEART

Favorite Songs

  1. Grimes, “Realiti”
  2. Big Grams, “Fell In the Sun”
  3. Vince Staples, “Surf”
  4. Tame Impala, “Cause I’m a Man”
  5. Father John Misty, “True Affection”
  6. Roosevelt, “Night Moves”
  7. Chairlift, “Ch-Ching”
  8. Jai Wolf, “Indian Summer”
  9. Grimes, “Artangels”
  10. Marcus Marr feat. Chet Faker, “The Trouble With Us”
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Nathan Wisnicki

Welp, best get the real-talk out of the way first, buzzkill though it may be: 30 years from now, most of the music that fickle fucks like you and I got excited for in 2015 will probably seem painfully quaint and not nearly as worth-remembering as we thought. And yet right now it really does seem like the best music of 2015 was somewhat better than the best music of the last, I dunno, few years. Not that there was more great stuff, God no; things are just getting more and more diluted, the rush to editorial consensus more and more sickening. But the good stuff aimed a little bit grander, either calling attention to its grand ambitions or making an effort for listeners not to notice said ambitions (which of course is its own kind of ambition). Whether in terms of 'right here, right now' sociopolitical import or sheer visceral sonic sweep (or both), plenty of musicians – including some like Lupe Fiasco and the Go! Team who’d been critically sidelined – made conscious efforts to create work that might someday be considered definitive of their oeuvre and/or auteurist sensibilities. Lest you expect a joke on its way, this is a good thing, though of course it also gave us plenty of pernicious bullshit to wade through. (Does anyone really believe people even 20 years from now will give a shit about Father John Misty?) Looking over my own list, it seems many of my choices are actually kinda militant, albeit deceptively or modestly so. Another good sign! (As an aside, two on my list are also ‘covers records’ of older material, and another – Boz Scaggs’ – almost made the list too.) Obviously it’s absurd to imply that one year can make any seismic difference…at least not 'til the revolution comes, and it's been 50 years since one of those actually stuck. But hey, riots can be a sign of improvement just as stillness can be a sign of despair – even if it’s evident in something as deceptively simple as popular music.

Favorite Albums

  1. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, Surf
  2. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
  3. The Mountain Goats, Beat the Champ
  4. Mbongwana Star, From Kinshasa
  5. Oneohtrix Point Never, Garden of Delete
  6. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
  7. Hop Along, Painted Shut
  8. The Go! Team, The Scene Between
  9. Yo La Tengo, Stuff Like That There
  10. Nellie McKay, My Weekly Reader

Favorite Songs

  1. Rihanna (featuring Kanye West & Paul McCartney), “FourFiveSeconds”
  2. The Mountain Goats, “The Ballad of Bull Ramos”
  3. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, “Just Wait”
  4. Titus Andronicus, “Dimed Out”
  5. Rae Sremmurd, “Safe Sex Pay Checks”
  6. Jeffrey Lewis, “Back to Manhattan”
  7. Jamie xx (featuring Romy), “SeeSaw”
  8. James McMurtry, “How’m I Gonna Find You Know”
  9. Hudson Mohawke, “Ryderz”
  10. Ashley Monroe, “On to Something Good”
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Genevieve Oliver

Remembering—late in 2015, listening to the Viet Cong s/t while I took Megabus from Toronto to Buffalo, on the peninsula between Great Lakes after a three-foot snowstorm, and feeling that I was happy and I loved my friends but I lived in a very strange world. February, 2015—driving from Seattle to Spokane to see Sleater-Kinney’s first show in eight years. Driving around Idaho in the fog and rain the next day listening to more and more Sleater-Kinney. Vexx and G.L.O.S.S. at the Cockpit the night Maryjane punched Clara in the boob—the night there were no cis men in the pit. At SXSW, having an asthma attack running from eating ramen uptown to seeing Spray Paint at Beerland to Mitski’s set at Longbranch Inn, during which I cried and cried by the jukebox in a packed room while my chest ached and Mitski played “Drunk Walk Home”; I waited for my cousin to come pick me up on the street outside while it rained and I thought about calling someone and screaming at them for breaking my heart for the first time since I was sixteen.

Listening to Doldrums’ “Hotfoot” on the bus from Vancouver to Whistler and Total Control’s “Carpet Rash” on the bus back. Listening to CCTV’s 7” on the bus from Seattle to Vancouver. Listening to Ought’s “Beautiful Blue Sky” for the first time in the Okanagan, on the bus from Vancouver to Banff, where there was so much smoke in the air from the forest fires that the sky seemed purple. Falling asleep every night on buses across the Prairie Provinces to a playlist that was 99% tracks by the Soft Walls and Timber Timbre and Stereolab’s “Blue Milk”, and it was so flat the light would stay in the sky until 11pm. Listening to Ought’s “Men for Miles” on a 4-hour delayed train from Montreal to New York and sticking hard on the lyric about fourteen clocks in half as many rooms. Listening to Deerhunter’s Fading Frontier for the first time on the bus north from Wilmington, Delaware, while a girl sitting next to me illustrated her jeans.

Seeing Protomartyr and Sheer Mag and Downtown Boys and Perfect Pussy and Destruction Unit front row, crushingly loud through the worst cold I’ve ever had, with a fever, with no voice, in New York; the only show I made it to in my sixth CMJ. Dancing down the street in Montreal to Wand’s cover of “M.E.”, eating black raspberries with my fingers at the end of July. Sitting in Cal Anderson Park just before I left Seattle editing my third novel and trying to figure out the words to Fountain’s “Venetian Unfolding”. Walking around Calgary all day in my vest with the Women back patch. Listening over and over in the frozen Northeast autumn to Cindy Lee’s Act of Tenderness and Malenkost.

“Trying to find my way home,” as the Slint song goes. Waking up hungover in my friends’ new place in Crown Heights while someone drove by blasting Grizzly Bear’s “While You Wait for the Others” outside, and realizing somehow somewhere I had become a real adult.

Favorite Albums

  1. Protomartyr, Agent Intellect
  2. Viet Cong, Viet Cong
  3. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
  4. Cindy Lee, Act of Tenderness
  5. Deerhunter, Fading Frontier
  6. Destruction Unit, Negative Feedback Resistor
  7. Marie Davidson, Un Autre Voyage
  8. Telstar Drugs, Sonatine
  9. Ought, Sun Coming Down
  10. Girl Band, Holding Hands With Jamie

Favorite Songs

  1. Vexx, “Flattened Scenes”
  2. Viet Cong, “Death”
  3. Marie Davidson, “Balade Aux USA”
  4. Deerhunter, “Breaker”
  5. Ought, “Men for Miles”
  6. Sleater-Kinney “A New Wave”
  7. Destruction Unit “Salvation”
  8. Protomartyr, “Dope Cloud”
  9. Fountain, “Venetian unfolding”
  10. Guerilla Toss, “Polly’s Crystal”
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Zach Bernstein

There are a few years that linger in my mind as seminally important, explosive eras in my love and appreciation of popular music—2004-2005, 2007, 2012. As I reflect on the past year, 2015 now takes its place in that pantheon as a year when my auditory horizons expanded in leaps and bounds. Sure, some of this may be attributed to 2015 being my first full year writing for PMA. But it also helps that there was just so much good music this year.

A few highlights—Sufjan Stevens and Tame Impala made gorgeous, career-best records, exploring the limits of acoustic austerity and symphonic psychedelia, respectively. Jamie xx made all the introverts smile and swoon in equal measure. Former one-hit-wonder Carly Rae Jepsen gave us the year’s most criminally ignored and best pop record, heralded by the monstrously saxophonic clarion-call of the wonderful “Run Away With Me”. Dan Bejar composed a stunning jazz-folk opus that actually made me miss living in New York City (or at least for the 4:11 runtime of “Times Square”). Chance the Rapper and his gleeful parter Donnie Trumpet hosted the summer’s most euphoric block party. And of course, 2015’s fruitful musical environment culminated in To Pimp A Butterfly. Kendrick Lamar’s masterful, virtuosic hip-hop polemic only seems to grow in relevance and immediacy with each passing day, as does its apocalyptic protest jam, “Alright”, my favorite song of the year.

No one will argue that the past twelve months weren’t tumultuous—politically, socially, climatically—and for those of us who like to turn to music for escapism, the pop charts, the festival grounds, and the record stores alike provided plenty of refuge. Maybe that’s why songs like “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”, “Sunday Candy”, and “Omen” were so important to me—however stylistically varied they may have been, they all offered the promise of simpler, happier moments.

Yet, 2015’s rich sonic tapestry also ensured that we wouldn’t forget weightier questions and thornier issues—artists like Kendrick Lamar, Sleater-Kinney, and the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard constantly challenged us, preached to us, and harnessed our conflicted emotions regarding the state of the world to produce some glorious records. What a time to be alive—2016, you have some big shoes to fill.

Favorite Albums

  1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly
  2. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell
  3. Tame Impala, Currents
  4. Jamie xx, In Colour
  5. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, Surf
  6. Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion
  7. Neon Indian, Vega Int’l Night School
  8. Disclosure, Caracal
  9. Destroyer, Poison Season
  10. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love

Favorite Songs

  1. Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
  2. Jamie xx, “Loud Places”
  3. Jamie xx, “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”
  4. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Run Away With Me”
  5. Tame Impala, “Cause I’m A Man”
  6. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”
  7. Sufjan Stevens, “Death With Dignity”
  8. Alabama Shakes, “Future People”
  9. The Wombats, “Give Me A Try”
  10. Disclosure (featuring Sam Smith), “Omen”
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Brendan Frank

Taking inventory at the end of every year is one of my favorite pastimes. As much as it probably seems like the last 12 months just blew past you, 365.25 days can really seem like a long time if you go back and look through each day. The biggest reason I love discovering new music is it tends to tie me to a very specific point in my life. You always remember where you were when fell in love with a song, especially if you still love it. Whenever it feels like my life is rushing by, I flip through the music that has soundtracked it and everything slows down.

Needless to say, there is and will be much to look back on. 2015 was a fantastic year for music. Even better, it was a promising one. We received near-masterpieces from several newcomers and numerous noteworthy career bests. It’s an embarrassment of riches. As in many cases, the true strength of this list can be better demonstrated by looking at what didn’t make the cut. Leaving albums by Floating Points, Alabama Shakes, Hop Along, Wolf Alice, Julia Holter, Viet Cong, Kurt Vile, Young Fathers, and Carly Rae Jepsen out of my top 10 were all tough decisions. It’s also worth noting that 2015 was especially strong given the absence of a true heavyweight album in its second half. Every potential candidate (Kanye West,Frank Ocean, Radiohead, Chromatics, M83, etc.) has deferred to 2016.

Unlike 2014, where I had no preference ordering amongst my five favorite albums, I have a clear MVP for 2015. Every album in my top 10 is worth geeking out over, but I spent more time listening to Unknown Mortal Orchestra than any other artist this year. Kendrick Lamar released the most important album, no question, but for pure musicianship Ruban Neilson’s work on Multi-Love was more impressive than anything else that reached my ears this year. Sufjan Steven’s work on the heartbreaking Carrie and Lowell is a close second. Then we have the immaculately produced works To Pimp a Butterfly, In Colour, Art Angels, and I Love You Honeybear. Courtney Barnett had the best debut of the year hands down, indeed one of the finest debuts of the past several years.

Favorite Albums

  1. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Multi-Love
  2. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell
  3. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit
  4. Jamie xx, In Colour
  5. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
  6. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear
  7. Deerhunter, Fading Frontier
  8. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, Surf
  9. Grimes, Art Angels
  10. Royal Headache, High

Favorite Songs

  1. Miguel, “Coffee”
  2. Tame Impala, “The Moment”
  3. Deerhunter, “Breaker”
  4. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”
  5. Courtney Barnett, “Pedestrian at Best”
  6. Sufjan Stevens, “Fourth of July”
  7. Father John Misty, “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”
  8. Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”
  9. Beach House, “Majorette”
  10. Viet Cong, “Continental Shelf”