Year End Music

Top Ten Albums of 2015

​Steven Casimer Kowalski and Neal Christyson
Another year comes to a close and another year where Steve and Neal school the rest of us on all of the awesome music we missed in the last 12 months. Check out the duo's picks for top ten albums of the year and enjoy this mammoth playlist of all the winners and recommendations. 

​10. Susanne Sundfør - Ten Love Songs

Neal: Susanne Sundfør is 29 years old. Ten Love Songs is her sixth studio album. She has basically been crushing Norwegian radio since the age of 21. I first found her due to so many reviewers linking her music with artists like M83, Royksopp, and Robyn. Sundfør’s early albums always incorporated the token sounds of that scene. It’s a dance party you are emotionally invested in. One in which if you don’t dance hard enough, things won’t be ok. Another key piece of her previous albums was that she seemed to take some big swings and consequently, has some misses. Sundfør always seemed to strive for something a bit more epic and operatic that was maybe out of her reach. Cue track six, “Memorial”... just your average 10 minute Baroque-monster of a track in the middle of a dance pop album. It acts more like an Aria, or that part in a musical when the main character really hammers home their dilemma. It’s the big swing. These moments take this album of otherwise simple Scandinavian dance pop and brings it into the realm of dark wave, chamber pop, and West Side Story. Ten Love Songs is utterly fantastic in its own right, and has pushed Susanne Sundfør towards the top of the list of artists I cannot wait to see what they do next. Knowing her track record, we won’t have to wait very long.

Steve: There is something special about an artist’s later albums being the first you hear. Ten Love Songs is my first exposure to Sundfør’s music and, based on your take, a great entry point. “Kamikaze” was a quick favorite, as was “Slowly”.  But this album might be best when she slows things down and goes for a more chamber-pop style. But I think what I like most is that these are assured choices. She sounds totally comfortable in all these modes. She does take chances and she does succeed and you don’t often get that from early records. The downside to later-career albums is, usually, that an artist has settled on a style so their own that they start to parody themselves. If you want a perfect example of this, listen to Coldyplay right now. Whatever your take on that band, it would be hard to say they didn’t at least try to make interesting pop records early on. Now, I don’t think so. But you don’t make it to the Super Bowl Halftime Nacho Show by going out on a limb. Susanne Sundfør, thankfully, is not done challenging herself. I’d like to think I would be that type of artist. But let’s face it, I’m ready for some football.

9. Vince Staples - Summertime '06

Steve: This isn’t a party album, but in 2015 it popped up on shuffle at a party I was throwing and, surprisingly, everyone was into it. After a few songs I changed the music lest the whole gathering be pulled down into a slow, bass-narcotic nap, but I guess it is a testament to NO I.D.’s production that these slow, grim beats with wide open spaces between the snare snaps could slide so easily into a happy room. Then once you start to pay attention to Vince things get truly great. In fact, this may be the best marriage of production and lyrics since Aquemini. But the thing I love the most is how much empty air this double album has. Empty isn’t at a premium in 2015. Which isn’t a bad thing. Fetty Wap released a tremendously busy, overblown record and it is awesome. But I needed an antidote to the maelstrom in 2015 and here, Staples’ calm delivery in a vacuum is perfect.

Neal: Look at you, referencing Aquemini and pretending you don’t know that it’s something people will freak out over. The best part is you’re totally right. The production is so wonderful and understated in a year when it seemed like people just kept scaling up. In fact I keep getting distracted from writing anything because I can’t stop listening to the song “Jump Off the Roof”. It’s so good and in a way reminds me a bit of someone like Gang Starr. Which if you know me, you know is pretty much the best compliment that can be said. I have extremely high hopes for this man and the future.

8. Blur - The Magic Whip

Neal: I mean, it’s Blur. It takes all of about 12 seconds and 4 notes into album opener “Lonesome Street” for you to know it’s a Blur album. It’s a great feeling. Blur is a band who is inextricable from the Britpop explosion of the 90s. But the fact that their drummer can also be described as an animator and solicitor and their bass player doubles as a cheesemaker shows that it has been a long time since “Song #2” and it has been a wonderful and silly journey to this point. Still, Blur beat the living crap out of Oasis decades ago and The Magic Whip is just piling on. It’s really good. It has that perfect balance of Graham Coxon abstractness married with Damon Albarn’s ability to craft and deliver one hell of a melodic hook (remember Gorillaz? He made a cartoon rap act the biggest group around using one hook). It’s just so wonderful to have Blur back, and even better that they did it in such a fantastic fashion.

Steve: You’ve always been far more attached to British rock than I have and that makes me feel outgunned in trying to respond. I’ll start with some common ground, “New World Towers” such a great opening track. But after that, I start to lose the plot. And I take HUGE issue with your assertion that Blur beat Oasis back in the day. Blur has the better catalog, sure. But Oasis has that one record that defined the entire decade. When we’re 40 let’s really hash out this Oasis/Blur thing once and for all. And let’s get some people who were really involved in that scene who are in their 50’s or 60’s and we can all shout at one another until we die. People will at least appreciate the ending, right? “Ice Cream Man” is not a good song, Neal. And “Ong Ong” is all anglo-sneering. I can feel their Britishness accusing me of being uncivilized.  However, “Ghost Ship” is such an incredibly gutsy lounge track. I cannot believe it made the record. I cannot believe they even wrote a song like this. This band finds itself in an envious spot this late in their career. They know they can do what they want.  They don’t care if it is good. But they are confident enough in their own talent to know that some of these experiments, however absurd, will turn out to be awesome. And THAT, for me, is what is wonderful about The Magic Whip.  

7. ​Ducktails - St. Catherine

Steve: Every year, one record makes a late-calendar rush to get on this list.  This year, that record was St. Catherine by Ducktails. The songwriting on this album is top notch. It is the second catchiest record I listened to this year. Second only to my choice for best album of the year which, once we get there, will certainly enhance the claim that the songs on here are just perfect. Another thing I respect about the record is how out of time it feels. Sometimes it feels 30 years ago. Sometimes it feels totally contemporary. It probably isn’t difficult to make those kinds of shifts but it is certainly an accomplishment to make them feel so natural. Maybe it is an album totally out of time? Or one that is creating its own aesthetic with each listen? And the best part about all that mystery is that pop music is the foundation. Really really great pop music.

Neal: “Killin The Vibe” from 2011’s Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics has long been a favorite and frequently played song for me. Outside that song nothing really grabbed me from this band so I’d pretty much written them off. I’m glad you picked this album because it forced me to give another listen to a band I had erroneously looked beyond. St. Catherine is really good, and just buries itself into your head for days. I don’t mean to be understated when I say this is just a very nice album to listen to. It’s probably the best task-associate album of 2015. You can put it on while you are doing anything and it just fits. That may sound like faint praise, but people need music to do things to. And boy do I really love the song “Church.”

6. ​Autre Ne Veut - Age of Transparency

Neal: I desperately want to be friends with Arthur Ashin. I also want to live in a world where people like him, Perfume Genius, Boots, and King Krule are the biggest pop stars in the world. I feel like we all would be having a lot more meaningful existential conversations. Age of Transparency is full of call backs to Autre Ne Veut’s equally accomplished 2013 album, Anxiety. Mr. Ashin seems to be creating a universe of songs and albums which all connect and contradict each other. While I don’t think there is a single song on this album which hits the heights of 2013’s album opener “Play By Play”. I think he is doing more interesting things in a more subtle way. It’s less one-big-moment and more a creation of many moments.

Steve: Earlier this year I thought this album had a legitimate chance at being #1. It accomplishes something so difficult, which is incorporating some really nice experimental flourishes into a pop aesthetic without, you know, ruining the music. These things almost always go one way or the other. Either the risks destroy the music. Or, maybe worse, the risks are so banal that no one notices. Credit where credit is due here for moments like the vocal effect at 2:37 on “Get Out.” It isn’t much, but the first time I heard it I thought, “I did not expect that.” And then I went right back into enjoying a good song. That’s all I need. Don’t try to wow me beyond that. This is probably the reason I haven’t given Radiohead an honest listen in 10 years.

​5. The Alabama Shakes - Sound and Color

Steve: One of my absolute favorite things in music is when a band releases a terrific second album. The Beastie Boys did it with Paul’s Boutique. Bjork’s Post is a masterpiece. New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies may be their finest hour. And now The Alabama Shakes join those ranks with Sound and Color. Make no mistake, this a cocoon-burst of an album. This is band stretching and preening and tinkering and finding success at almost every turn. “Guess Who” is my favorite song on this album. Those orchestral flourishes and chooglin groove make some kind of roots-cool magic. Not 100% sure I’ve ever heard a song quite like it. I cannot believe that still happens but here we are.  

Neal: This band has always been on the periphery for me. Whether it was random songs played by friends or catching the odd single on the radio. Sound and Color could not have been a better album for me to really dig into, because I love it. To me this band is at it’s best when things are slightly slowed down, and that jittery guitar comes piercing through with a few notes, then fades right back into the groove. Case in point “Future People” which is such a great song. I also like to think that for the song “Shoegaze” they were writing the song and stopped, said “man that bassline really sounds like Ride. Whelp, I guess we know what we’re calling the song then.”

​4. Rae Sremmurd - SremmLife

Neal: 2014 was the year. “No Flex Zone” was released as a single. It is now days away from 2016 and I still get SO HYPED whenever I hear that song. 2015 was a year of mumble-rap. Young Thug and Fetty Wap killed the nonsense delivery. Future released an album DS2, that while not nearly as good as 2013’s Pluto was pretty damn good, and full of rapping whiney warble. Even Drake aped that sound on the TERRIBLE “Hot Line Bling.” The fact is I don’t think there is an album in 2015 I listened to more than SremmLife. 7 of the 11 tracks are easy number one singles. The music video for “This Could Be Us” is the best of the year. SremmLife is incredibly boisterous, loud, and fun. And it just works from beginning to end.  Start your morning by listening to “Unlock The Swag” and tell me you disagree. You won’t, because you can’t.

Steve: Let’s talk about “Up Like Trump.” The hook is “Up Like Donald Trump.” Should I care what that means? Does it have to mean anything? When they say, “Read my lips” later in the song do they know they’re echoing GW Bush and layering their song with Republican imagery? Does the lyric “Twerk Like She From Russia” intentionally evoke Putin, possibly drawing an explicit connection between Russian Oligarchy and contemporary American politics? I would then have to assume that “Soldiers at Ten-Hut” references American military overreach and “Pull Up to SunTrust” was written to remind listeners that SunTrust Mortgage was ordered by the Federal Government to pay out $500 million dollars in relief as penance for their role in the 2007-08 financial crisis. I don’t think I even need to unpack the meaning in a line like, “Forbes list, Forbes list, Forbes list, Forbes, read it like The Bible.” You gotta pay attention to this stuff, man.

​3. Campdogzz - Riders in The Hills of Dying Heaven

Steve: Where the fuck did this band come from? One minute, I’m living a normal life. I am going to work. I am fine. Then, on October 7th (I looked this up) I get an email from my friend Rich that says, and I quote:

“This album was just recommended to me and I'm digging it. I think you might too. In case that's true, check out Campdogzz - Riders in the Hills of Dying Heaven”

So understated. Thank you, Rich. I play the damn thing and am immediately pulled into a desolate, American midwestern Dirty Three jammer called “For Decades.” I am stunned. This never happens. These things never come out of nowhere and grab you by the throat. But then track two starts. It’s called “The Wall”. And it’s on “The Wall” where Campdoggz first let singer Jess Price holler. Y’all, her voice is so great. Always expressive and loud and powerful with a lilting creek that’ll rip your goddamn guts out. You go ahead and put on “Healer” and try not think about every person you miss and every mistake you’ve made and oh what you could be if you’d have known just a little better. This song is one of 2015’s best moments and you’ll be better off once you’re through it.

Neal: Despite their name sounding like a No Limit Records sub-collective, this Campdogzz album is so good. My favorite part about doing this list is finding an album I never knew before we started. For 2015, it is this album. While I could spend this entire time complaining about why you get such an email and I don’t...I am not a petty man. This is not about me. This certainly isn’t about email. However, maybe I have a little bit more to say other than “I really like this album!” Or maybe I could go beyond “‘Limbs’ really is the early stand out song for me. It has driving, pounding drums, and dear god does Jess Price have a voice.” Look, I’m sure I have more to say, somewhere. But you just can’t blame my lack of insight on me. And don’t blame my lack of clever retorts on Campdogzz. It’s not their fault they put out a great album and I was unaware. Really, this is entirely Rich’s fault for CC’ing me on that email.

2. ​Twerps - Range Anxiety

Neal: Before listening to this album I knew almost nothing about this band. What follows is a few things Range Anxiety has taught me about the band Twerps.

1. They have been around since the 40s because there is no reason any band starting in 2015 should be able to have a band name as wonderful as Twerps.
2. This band is made up of not real people, but old VHS copies of episodes of 120 Minutes.
3. I know the timelines of 1 and 2 don’t necessarily add up. Add it to the list.

The thing about Range Anxiety is how easy it is to acknowledge, and then promptly look past all the 90’s nostalgia and just enjoy it for what it is. Because it’s a really good album. It’s breezy and clever. It’s all of that and also completely current and new. And seriously, how great of a band name is Twerps. It might be the best.

Steve: 2015 had full compliment of bands that would have fit in real nice on 120 Minutes. As a devotee of that show, I am not complaining. But I should. And I would understand if popular culture’s commitment to the rear-view in 2015 bothered more people. And while the 90’s are, right now, the easiest layer to mine, it doesn’t seem like restraint will be prized in 2016. Sure, I am happy with the revivals now. I’ve got great records that recall the good times of my youth falling from the sky! This Twerps album is super nice. That Bully album is good. Parquet Courts are taking those gold sounds and spinning them out fresh. But on the horizon is some reimagining of TRL. And beyond that, I promise you this, will be another nu-metal. It might not be the mixture of rap and rock that made everything it touched a joyless bore in 2002, but it will be close. My money is on a mixture of EDM and aggressive hip-hop. Whatever it will be, it was on the 3rd stage at The Gathering 2 years ago and is poised to blow up big an economically depressed midwestern town. From there, a more polished version will rise from either Florida or California. Then we’ll see two or three copycats who have strong Youtube followings. Finally, watered down imitators, the new Nickelback's, shall come. It could get real ugly.  

1. ​Carly Rae Jepsen - Emotion

Steve: This was the best record of the year. Every song is good. Most of the songs are great. Carly worked herself into a perfect spot by using mall pop like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson as a base and updating it with production that would make Janet Jackson proud. It is an ideal pop product. So good that it should be one of those pop albums that people who don’t like pop music have to at least acknowledge is “well crafted”. Ugh, those people are the worst. Like, you’re going to listen to something as energetic and fun as “Boy Problems” and respond by running it through a computer to make sure it checks out against your algorithm and only then will you nod in approval? So lame, dude. Just admit you’re too scared to be vulnerable enough to enjoy yourself. It’s ok, joylessness is all the rage. But for the rest of you/us, this album is a treat. It asks almost nothing of the listener and delivers volumes. It’s the kind of pop record people complain about never hearing. That rare mixture of absolute commercial aspiration and focused creativity. People will figure this one out sooner or later. So in a year, 5 years, 10 years when someone tells you this is an unsung gem, gently remind them you’ve been singing it from the jump.

Neal: I just want to take a moment to point something out. By putting Carly Rae Jepsen at #1 we are forever creating a direct cultural link between her and Bobby Womack. We are doing great work. This album is all about “Boy Problems” for me. It’s basically one of the best Daft Punk songs in years. For quite a bit of time I had conversations with friends about how great this album was without ever listening to it. I absolutely trusted the taste of the people who liked it and deep down I knew it was going to be good. But I still had this lingering doubt. Turns out I was just lending undue existential issues to pop music. What else is new, right? Especially because everyone was right.

Honorable Mentions

​This was a very good year for music. So here are some amazing albums that deserve attention. We each picked 5.

Steve's Honorable Mentions

Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Steve: I want more songwriters to have a sense of humor. Like, you don’t all have to be Weird Al but can you at least acknowledge the idea of jokes? Courtney gets it and does that whole thing better than anyone writing rock music right now.
Neal: “Sometimes I think a single sneeze could be the end of us.”
Courtney Barnett is just the coolest.

Action Bronson - Mr. Wonderful
Steve: Sorry, Action, you released a rap album in 2015 against To Pimp A Butterfly, Summertime '06 and the Chance the Rapper entertainment carnival. But, at least you had the foresight to put Chance on your album.
Neal: I can’t wait to see what rap albums come out in 2016 that you just know were held back because 2015 was a slaughterhouse of big releases.

New Order - Music Complete
Steve: Ready for a hot take? This is the best New Order album since 1986’s Brotherhood. Which means, yes, I am saying it is better than Technique AND Crystal. *Puffs out chest*
Neal: Um, Music Complete is really good and MAYBE better than Technique, but Crystal is the opening track on the album titled Get Ready which is better than Music Complete so maybe dial it back a bit. *Pops chest*(note: we left Steve’s innocent mistake in so that Neal could feel like a big shot.)

Royal Headache - High
Steve: Their only real sin was making just another great Royal Headache album. It is real good tho.
Neal: Keep doing you, Royal Headache. I will listen.

Young Guv - Ripe 4 Luv
Steve: An 8 song EP with an INCREDIBLE titular single. I respect the economy of the record and the band’s whole chilled out vibe. “Livin the Dream” sounds like one of the best songs Felt ever wrote.
Neal: Best new band whose name made me initially think they were a rapper? Maybe tied with Woozy and Tove Lo.

Neal's Honorable Mentions

Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Asunder, Sweet, and Other Distress
Neal: They’re one of my all time favorite bands. This album is better than their last, which made the top ten. But it’s also barely two songs.
Steve: Hard to tire of what this band does. Was really surprised to see them regroup in 2015.

Petite Noir - La Vie Est Belle
Neal: T.V. On The Radio + Bloc Party + The Dream. There’s no way this is the last we hear of him right?
Steve: This will, hopefully, be someone who just gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

Boots - Aquaria
Neal: Remember that Beyonce album that randomly dropped and people named it the best of the year after listening to it for ten minutes? The one with that song you love? Supposedly 80% Boots. Also, his biggest obstacle because yet again, someone mentioned Beyonce when talking about his album.
Steve: I firmly believe he would be better off right now without that Beyonce boost. Then again, his back account probably does not agree.

Disclosure - Caracal
Neal: They’re really good at what they do and I like what they do. What more do you want from me?
Steve: Remember in 2013 when we said Sam Smith was going to be HUGE and we were correct. People need to listen to us.

Built To Spill - Untethered Moon
Neal: During the opening track “All Our Songs” Doug Martsch sings “And now we settle for this complicated metaphor” and I get chills. And it’s 2015 and Built To Spill released a fantastic album that does that to me. But mostly Untethered Moon makes me think about how perfect Keep It Like a Secret is, and while I know it’s not entirely their fault, it is a little.
Steve: “When I’m Blind” is the kind of song I love BTS for. It is long and messy. I just want this band to make one album that is two, 30-minute songs and take their place as the indie rock Allman Brother Band.