PMA writers touch on some of the lauded albums they just couldn’t get into this year, including four that landed in the top 10 of our Best Albums of 2015.
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Position on PMA’s Albums of 2015 list: № 4
What does it mean to hate, hate, hate an album beloved by the many (particularly those whom you respect)? How do you hold such a debate? Music—inherently personal, with our tastes ingrained by lifelong prejudices—is the most subjective branch of art. All arguments, despite highfalutin invocations of form and theme and execution to the contrary, eventually reduce to I abhor (or adore) this thing. Why? Well, just because. Once we move away from the objectively awful (i.e., amateurish garbage), it’s impossible to make a convincing argument to a naysayer either way. Science still can’t explain the neuroanatomy behind, say, the minor key and why it makes us feel sad. The ear is fickle and stubborn. Rational persuasion will rarely convince a listener to cherish this pop hit or dismiss that classical symphony (and vice versa).
So, on philosophical grounds, I object to objecting to others’ musical preferences. And yet, since I’m compelled to shit on a critically acclaimed album for this feature, I choose to direct my ire at Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell. You, dear reader, probably admire its precious sounds, biographical touches, and metaphysical implications. Good for you! I quote the great Carl Wilson, not as a retort, but as an accurate description of my loathing: “When you hate a song, the reaction tends to come in spasms. Hearing it can be like having a cockroach crawl up your sleeve: you can't flick it away fast enough.” For me, Carrie & Lowell contains eleven such songs.
I can’t deny Sufjan Stevens’ talent. And I’m only slightly baffled by the high praise he garners. But Carrie & Lowell, Stevens’ best reviewed release in years, only reinforces my longstanding (irrational) disdain for his music. Those whispering vocals might as well be screeches. The album’s delicate sonics inspire a punch to its author’s nose. This spare jewel box of a record begs to be smashed, its lingering bits stomped into smithereens for good measure. I despise Carrie & Lowell, deeply and viscerally. The next time Sufjan Stevens seeks to unload feelings on an unwitting listener, I pray he books a psychotherapist rather than a studio space. Why? Well, just because. — Peter Tabakis
Tame Impala, Currents
Position on PMA’s Albums of 2015 list: № 6
25 sounds great. It’s a top-notch production job, hands down one of the year’s best. What’s that? I’m not writing about the (disappointing) new Adele album? Coulda fooled me. Currents is a lush, psychedelic swoon of a pop-rock album, sure, but I can’t get behind Kevin Parker’s somnolent songwriting. It just sounds like B-grade Dan Snaith plus a lot of bells and whistles that, to my ears, function more like desperate makeup than integral elements of the songs. The whole affair smacks of that weird moment in 2011 when post-Merriweather Post Pavilion white bread indie rock collided inexplicably with the smooth sounds of ’80s easy listening, but a few years late to be fashionable and, moreover, without any distinctive edge. Its handful of brilliant moments—the part in “Let It Happen” where it sounds like the record is skipping comes to mind—can’t possibly manage all the heavy lifting on an album with so much dead weight. The reverb-to-content ratio is all out of whack, and just because it’s immersive doesn’t mean it’s interesting.
Look, it’s not that I think this an emperor-has-no-clothes situation—there are definitely clothes, lots of ’em, and they’re all exquisite. But the emperor himself is quite bland, and I struggle to see how that formula could possibly translate into a reason to keep listening to Currents in any setting except my optometrist’s waiting room (my optometrist is way hip—he even plays the uncensored version!). After many repeated listens, many arguments with friends, reading many glowing reviews—even after putting aside my vehement distaste for everything about the awful single “’Cause I’m A Man”—Currents still leaves me feeling the same way that the middling, treacly, album-filling cuts on 25 do: impressed, dazzled even, by the technical prowess on display, but also cold, baffled, and ultimately just plain bored. — Sam Catlin
Father John Misty, I Love You Honeybear
Position on PMA’s Albums of 2015 list: № 8
I avoided Josh Tillman’s “breakout” album as long as I could; no matter how many times his dumb stage name and dumber album cover were shoved in my face, it seemed obvious that his sudden “rise” (snort) was a transparent promotional assault aimed to capitalize on the fact that blatant self-consciousness is the only way to get anyone to pay attention to beard-y orchestral singer-songwriter indie music any more. (Which is a shame, as I’ve always found Fleet Foxes, the band Tillman gigged with, quite pretty.) When I finally listened, I had to admit a grim satisfaction that the music was every bit as grotesquely anodyne as I suspected.
Tillman’s lyrics were construed as alternately heartbreaking and darkly parodic takes on the futility of love in the age of vapid social media and post-post-(post-?) irony...or something, I dunno; the attempts at selling this guy were so tortured that even before I heard the stuff I could tell he wouldn't even be a blip in the rear-view mirror in five years’ time. (Any takers?) But whatever the lyrics are worth—and I'm not gonna give him points for just shoving his self-awareness in my face—the actual music was barely discussed, probably because it’s hard to work around the fact that without the (unremarkable) string and horn arrangements these songs are barely distinguishable from Jack fucking Johnson. Whether banging away hopelessly in the overbearing opener or turning to drum machines for pointillist electro-folk later on, his melodies are never anything special, and with a voice this frat-boy snoozy, who gives a shit anyway? (Vocally, he’s like Jim James of My Morning Jacket but without the capacity for high belting—physical power—that can make James occasionally pleasant.)
Anyone who went nuts for songs that paired phrases like “every insufferable convo” to lilting schmaltzy orchestrations and didn’t even pay lip service to the newest Mountain Goats album deserves to live with the fact that ten years from now their raves will sound almost as embarrassing as I Love You, Honeybear. — Nathan Wisnicki
Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, Surf
Position on PMA’s Albums of 2015 list: № 9
I live in the Chicago area, so I’m risking a bit of a pitchfork-and-torch reaction on this one, which is why it needs to be couched a bit. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment’s Surf, which in many people’s heads was inaccurately billed as Chance the Rapper’s third solo release, is a perfectly fine record. It’s exceptional in a few spots, and lackluster in others. But the real problem is that too often it’s edgeless.
Every member of the Social Experiment band (Nico Segal, Peter Cottontale, Nate Fox, Greg Landfair, Jr. and Chance) is supremely talented, and the group can produce some downright gorgeous music. Unfortunately, on a lot of Surf their work ends up coming out in blobs—albeit joyous, brightly colored blobs—but blobs that grow tedious over the course of a full-length release due to their freeform, disorganized feel.
Lyrically, the record also doesn’t have a lot of bite. What made Acid Rap so incredible was the juxtaposition of nostalgic, comforting images with Chance’s dark wit and the grim realities of life in Chicago. Having songs like “Cocoa Butter Kisses” and “Paranoia” exist in the same space made for a mesmerizing, emotionally resonant listen. There isn’t a lot of underside to Surf, and it is ultimately guest MCs like Saba or Joey Purp provide the album’s more weighty bars.
In terms of musical structure, The Social Experiment’s best moments are when their booming jazzy sound is paired with a more traditional hip-hop backbone. The combination of trilling flutes and Quavo on “Familiar” is genius, and the band’s bluesy interjections on “SmthnthtIwnt” compliment the track’s spacey minimalism beautifully, but too much of Surf is open-ended and soft.
There’s nothing wrong with Surf being a celebration, there should absolutely be more optimistic hip-hop in the world, but by so greatly emphasizing that side of things they missed the chance to put together a truly great album. Hopefully Chance’s upcoming next release will be a better bridging of the Social Experiment sound and his rap roots. — Grant Rindner
Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Multi-Love
Position on PMA’s Albums of 2015 list: № 16
On paper, the case of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s surprisingly busted third LP Multi-Love seems suspect. Album flops happen every year with dismissible frequency, but normally they surprise no one. This is largely due to the motif established by an album’s pre-released singles. Earlier this year, Disclosure signaled sophomore LP Caracal by dropping a slew of tracks that, despite being catchy enough to pique interest, couldn’t compete with even the more oblique tracks off debut LP Settle. Caracal’s lackluster performance, therefore, was expected. Judging albums, much like anything else, is all about context clues.
Employing the same bastardized brand of Aristotelian logic, Multi-Love should have been one of the best albums of the year. Prior to its release-proper, Ruban Neilson dropped bread crumbs in the form of pop-fueled jam “Multi-Love” and lo-fi banger “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”. “Multi-Love” showcased the most accessible sound UMO had ever produced, while “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” only furthered the argument that Neilson was onto something big. They were awesome.
So what happened? Simply stated: UMO chose the wrong bread crumbs. Recall, prior to Multi-Love, Orchestra’s portfolio comprised two albums that were exceptional, experimentally. The whole aesthetic was new and exciting and boundary-breaking. The weirdness of “FFunny FFriends” was also its charm. However, “unconventional” has never boded well by pop standards. The disparity here happened when UMO chose to pre-release the two poppiest tracks of their career as the harbingers for Multi-Love, compelling a curious audience to believe the entire album would sound just as accessible.
The result, as you can tell by now, was far from the expectation. Tracks like “Like Acid Rain”, “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty”, and “Necessary Evil” are phenomenal by old UMO standards. Had any of them been pre-released, expectations for Multi-Love would have been much closer to the path from which UMO had never planned to deviate. What ensued, however, was a blasé album that confused audiences, and not in a good way. — Austin Reed
Drake, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
Appeared on critic top 20 lists: 17 times
It’s becoming necessary to distinguish between Drake, once-in-a-generation cultural icon and Drake, critically acclaimed rapper. Because the former makes total sense: Drake is the perfect celebrity for the modern age. He’s hyper-aware of his reputation, savvy with social media, genuinely funny and insanely likable. Oh, and he’s also a really good rapper and a distinct singer. So yeah, it’s no surprise that Drake is one of the world’s biggest celebrities.
But when you listen to his mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, it is surprising that he’s the most streamed artist in the world, and that Too Late has earned a spot on so many end-of-year lists. With 17 songs, nearly all using variations of the same minimalist beat, the mixtape is almost unbearably dull, and remarkably repetitive. Of course, there are memorable catchphrases (“running through the 6 with my woes”) and solid hooks (“Energy”) but mostly, this is an hour-long demonstration of smooth lyrical flow, and not much else. At a time when some of the year’s best rap albums feature elaborate jazz instrumentation and musical melodies (To Pimp A Butterfly and Surf), it’s surprising that so many listeners prefer hashtags to choruses. — Adam Offitzer
Leon Bridges, Coming Home
Appeared on critic top 20 lists: 6 times
No one was more painfully “authentic” in 2015 than Leon Bridges. You know him, he spent nearly an entire album press-cycle dressed in his grandfather’s clothes and under a b&w filter. He’s on the longlist for Best Original Song at the Oscars for something he wrote for that Will Smith vs The NFL movie. He’s got an Instagram account more curated than Beyoncé—and didn’t you hear? He brought real soul back! I think his debut album, Coming Home, wants to be a time-capsule—an album lost in time—and that’s where it loses me. For an album to feel out of time, to truly feel like a lost album, it needs to be worthy of being missed and, consequently, worthy of being rediscovered. What we have instead is Leon Bridges making a very serviceable Sam Cooke impression for 34 minutes. Unfortunately, he fails to leave an impression.
What annoys me most is that Bridges is actually a talented dude, exceptionally even, with a golden ear and a boyfriendable voice. It’s a pity that he seems to have no identity or interesting point of view. Coming Home could have been more than an accidental Ira Levin parody of “the good old days.” Because, you know what? The good old days fucking sucked, not that one would know that by listening to Coming Home. The closest Bridges gets to summoning the pathos of golden age soul music is with the stirring LP closer, “River”, a pretty little dirge that, like so many before, confuses sex with salvation. It’s successful, for the most part, until you realize that this isn’t a song at all—you’re actually being targeted for new Beats headphones. — Luis Tovar