In last year’s Top Ten Albums list I praised the writers for the breadth of styles that their selections covered. This year’s list pushes that envelope much further; the twin towers of hip-hop, a genre-bending pop weirdo, a couple groups of young punks, reunited riot grrls, and even a revolutionary Broadway musical are all represented on the list. Even with some notable no-shows, music this year was as exciting as ever, and as we look forward to a great 2016, reflect on some of the best of 2015 with Deadshirt’s Top Ten Albums of 2015.
– Julian Ames, Music Editor
1. E•MO•TION – Carly Rae Jepsen
On February 15th, 2016, Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar are going to split up the Grammy’s and maybe Adele will come out and sing the same damn song she’s been singing for years really really loudly, but none of it is going to even remotely fucking matter because Carly Rae Jepsen won’t win a thing. And that’s a travesty.
In pop music, we mercilessly pile on when a “one hit wonder” fails to recapture magic in a bottle the second time out. We hate to see someone make good, so we can’t wait for that sophomore slump so we can drag them down from the stars back to the seedy muck with the rest of us. CRJ not only outdid “Call Me Maybe” (with “I Really Really Like You”) on this, her third LP, but she put together a delicate, infectious collection of songs that’s as beautiful and catchy as any slices of pop made in the last decade. From the prom night slow dance of “All That” to the friend zone regret of “Your Type,” Jepsen curates these relatable vignettes of love and loss, lust and lament. She’s as adept at capturing the lightning rod rush of first attraction (“Let’s Get Lost”) as she is wrestling with the tedium of relationship quabbles (“Boy Problems”). Maybe sugary, bubblegum pop music isn’t your thing, but it’s statistically unlikely that you can listen to E*MO*TION all the way through without ending up with at least one tune to hum for the rest of the week. Perhaps like me, you’ll find yourself belting out the lyrics to “Run Away With Me” while waiting in line at Taco Bell. Adele’s album sold roughly ten quintilion times what this project did, so you might be the only one in a three mile radius who knows what song they’re from, but maybe, just maybe, even in your troubling baritone, these dulcet words will find a home in the hearts of those quesadilla-seeking strangers.
— Dominic Griffin
2. Too – FIDLAR
A few months ago, it was my turn to write a song review for Deadshirt Is Listening, and I was having trouble finding something to write about. I’m a pretty tough room, musically, and I often find it hard to get excited about new tracks or new artists, so I actually run into this problem a lot. So, Julian started throwing tracks at me that I might have something to say about, and one of them was “Drone” by FIDLAR. “Drone” is a pretty by-the-numbers punk song, and while I liked it, I didn’t really hear anything special in it. So, I wrote about it from the angle of FIDLAR being a band keeping the spirit of old-school punk alive, turned in my draft and moved on. It was, admittedly, a pretty lazy review, but at the time I honestly considered “Drone” to be pretty lazy song.
Weeks later, when Too was released, Julian put on the LP, and I got the full experience of the album, and I was immediately ashamed of how dismissive I’d been in my review. Too is a goddamn fantastic punk rock album—energetic, emotional, and, above all, authentic. FIDLAR is not a band simply repurposing old Buzzcocks songs; they’re capturing that golden age energy and forming their own thoughts and ideas about their own world. Too is an album about the concerns of modern youth, about being the first generation to be constantly surveilled (and by ourselves, no less), about increasingly complex modern romance, about feeling like trash, about being reviled by our elders. This is real Millennial punk, with a point of view. It’s thoughtful, it’s self-deprecating, and it’s catchy as hell, the whole way through.
Forget “Drone.” That’s easily the weakest cut on the album. Listen to “40 oz. On Repeat,” “Why Generation,” “West Coast,” “Bad Habits,” hell, pretty much any other song on the album, and give yourself plenty of room to jump and flail and knock shit over.
— Dylan Roth
3. To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
Originally titled “Tu Pimp A Caterpillar” (or Tu.P.A.C.) as a reference to Kendrick Lamar taking up the mantle of the new king of hip-hop, To Pimp a Butterfly ended up being possibly the most important record of 2015. The album, which was released a week ahead of schedule in March, couldn’t have arrived at a better time; with the Black Lives Matter movement in full swing, the tracks about blackness and black civil rights captured and crystallized the national frustration and gave the movement its rallying cry.
But, as much as the politically charged songs like “Alright” and “King Kunta” garnered To Pimp a Butterfly media attention, civil rights is not the central focus of the album. Instead, the album is more like a tour of Kendrick Lamar’s psyche. Kendrick explores his self-doubt and self-loathing, berating himself in ”u” and “The Blacker the Berry,” and then proceeds to build himself back up in the triumphant “i.” A worldview-altering trip to South Africa and a post-success Compton homecoming helped shape the album and are directly referenced in tracks like “How Much A Dollar Cost” and “Hood Politics.” In several spots on the album, Lamar also reflects on his struggle to grapple with fame and success and rejecting the perception that successful rappers should be flashy and extravagant. Of course, the national issue of racial inequality in the justice system is on the mind of every black person in America, so To Pimp a Butterfly spends a lot of time on that; although, save for maybe “King Kunta,” none of the tracks really feel like protest songs. Even “Alright,” which became the rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, feels like more a personal motivational statement than a national one.
Musically, To Pimp a Butterfly mostly stays away from the trap beats and EDM-influenced production that is common in most pop rap these days. Instead, the album takes cues from jazz and, most prominently, funk, harkening back to some of the best West Coast rap of the ’90s. This personally made it appeal to me more than most of the stuff from the other hip-hop titan of 2015, Drake, and, I suspect, also made the album more accessible for people who may not regularly listen to hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar does something really cool structurally here as well; at the end of the third track, he introduces the very first line of a poem, this poem appears in subsequent songs, each time with more and more lines added, until finally it’s read in full in the final track “Mortal Man” as a part of a “conversation” with Tupac (audio taken from a 1994 interview).
Kendrick Lamar is an extremely smart and thoughtful lyricist. His honest accounts of the things that go through his head allow the listener to see events through his eyes, relate to things that maybe they wouldn’t typically relate to. The album is worth multiple listens: Even now, nine months after its release, I’m still finding something new, maybe a clever bit of wordplay, or maybe a new way of looking at something in my own life – with To Pimp A Butterfly you come for the political and cultural relevance, but you stay for the introspection.
— Julian Ames
4. Art Angels – Grimes
For most of 2015, Art Angels lived in the nebulous theoretical zone along with New Kanye and New Frank Ocean; we knew it was coming, but not when, or what it would sound like. Sure, there were some bread crumbs — the dubsteppy “Go” and gauzy “REALiTi (Demo)” — but nothing reliably pointing to what a new Grimes album would sound like. I didn’t really come to Grimes until shortly after the release of Visions in 2012, but I was immediately engrossed by her ambient, trippy soundscapes. When the album finally dropped in late October, I actually had to wait a few days before listening to it, steeling myself for what could very well have been a huge disappointment after such a long wait. But when I finally worked up the nerve to dive into Art Angels, I heard something I never knew I needed from Grimes: an unapologetically balls-to-the-wall pop album.
The spiritual lovechild of Gwen Stefani and Joan Jett, Art Angels finds Grimes, née Claire Boucher, eschewing the witch house/chillwave aesthetic she’s carefully honed over the last half-decade in favor of fully embracing (or maybe giving in to) pop maximalism—it’s a relentless, at times overwhelming experience. The record reflects a duality to the personas Boucher is presenting; as she’s alluded to in interviews, there are really two sides to the record. Many of the tracks are upbeat, bubblegum-sweet cuts (“Flesh without Blood,” “Pin,” “Realiti”), but occasionally Grimes taps into a darker, more aggressive place. These tracks are some of the best on the album and show Grimes at her most adventurous: on “Kill V. Maim,” her voice oscillates from Powerpuff Girl to feral snarl, and on “SCREAM” she does, well, just that, over Taiwanese guest rapper Aristophanes’ incredible prose. It’s a far cry from the chill yet chilling “Oblivion” that Grimes built her name on.
But Art Angels isn’t as much about “redefining” as it is about “defining again,” the difference being that Grimes is simply pulling into sharper focus who she is as an artist, as a feminist, as a human. It’s evident in her arrangements, snappy and vibrant where they would once have been drenched in woozy reverb. It’s evident in her vocal performance, confident, melodically complex, and pushed to the front of each track where they would once have been buried in the mix. And it’s evident in her lyrics, direct, brash and accusatory where they would once have been timid and mysterious. Art Angels is the sound of Grimes claiming her space, extending both middle fingers to her haters, and walking backwards into Hell. Of course I want to follow her.
— Sam Paxton
5. Hamilton, an American Musical – Lin-Manuel Miranda
Hamilton is a lot of things. It’s a hip-hop-infused Broadway musical, the very model of a modern major musical, one might say. It’s a reclamation and critique of American history. It’s in the ballpark of 90-95% historically accurate. But (for the purposes of this list, anyway) most importantly, it is some damn fine music. Whether it’s the trap-infused “Reynolds Pamphlet,” the boastful bars of “Guns and Ships,” or the more classic-Broadway belting of “The Room Where It Happens,” every single song on this cast album is an achievement, lyrically, musically, and contextually, in terms of conveying character and emotion. This is a musical you can listen to on shuffle—though be warned, that means you never know when you’re going to catch a common Hamilton Trash affliction, Act Two Feels.
Hamilton, both textually and metatextually, addresses something a lot of the other albums on this list address: the promise and reality of America’s, for lack of a better term, mission statement, and the gulf between where we are and where America’s Founders professed they were bleeding to be. This show—and, by extension, album—dedicates much more space to staunch abolitionist John Laurens than most American History textbooks. That fact, paired with his only solo line in the patriots’ decisive victory, “Yorktown” (“black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom”), makes it clear that this show was cast as nearly 100% people of color (with the notable exception of King George III) not simply to avoid icky feelings of appropriation during raps, but to highlight how exclusionary American history, and its telling, have been.
Hamilton is a collection of catchy, emotive, often inspiring tunes. It’s a lesson on the merits of hard work and determination. But it’s also a reminder of how far we have yet to go to realize a promise that was never fulfilled, no matter what nostalgiacs will tell you: the American Promise.
–– Cameron DeOrdio
6. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett
As the best Down Under-adjacent musical export since Crowded House, Courtney Barnett sonically builds guitar-heavy tunes that crunch and swirl like the unholy spawn of Nirvana and Wilco. But it’s the lyrics she laconically sings on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit that cut the young and the aimless to the core. Opening track “Elevator Operator,” a yarn about a young corporate drone considering his future from the unsteady top of a building, speaks volumes about The Way We Young People Live Now and Whether It Works.
Elsewhere, on the Dylanesque “Pedestrian At Best” (“I’m a fake / I’m a phony / I’m awake / I’m alone / I’m homely / I’m a Scorpio”) and the haunting, beautiful “Depreston,” about a couple moving to the suburbs because that seems to be the right thing to do, Barnett further establishes herself as one of the most vital voices of rock and roll today: sardonic, anxious, eager to share, and female (Liz Phair would be proud). Her songs and her vision will not get out of my way, and I’m not sure I want them to. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is exactly the kind of record we need in a year like 2015.
— Mike Duquette
7. The Most Lamentable Tragedy – Titus Andronicus
I’ll admit, The Most Lamentable Tragedy served as my introduction to New Jersey punk/indie sextet Titus Andronicus, but it was love at first toe-tap. I first encountered the band while copyediting a Deadshirt Is Listening in which Julian discussed teaser single “Dimed Out,” and I knew then and there I was going to buy this album the moment it dropped. This was the band I’d always, without knowing it, wanted Fake Problems to be. That’s not to speak ill of the anti-Wikipedia Floridians, but it takes that group’s high-energy sound, which so moved me when I saw them open for Gaslight Anthem in Cleveland, and adds the pair of middle fingers you really need a background in the Tri-State Area to deliver at full strength. Despite its name—and, by extension, its concept-album plot—The Most Lamentable Tragedy is home to a lot of life-affirming, blood-pumping anthems, even when its protagonist is vulnerable. For much of this year (well, in the several months between TMLT’s debut and my getting on the Hamilton bandwagon) this album, especially the aforementioned “Dimed Out,” was my go-to face-the-day music, an important weapon in any living human’s Art Arsenal for Day-to-Day Survival.
— Cameron DeOrdio
8. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late – Drake
Kendrick may have been more vital, more adventurous, and more relevant to the racial landscape of America in 2015, but there’s no denying that Drake owned this year. Released nearly out of nowhere and packaged with a pointless argument as to whether it was an album or a mixtape, IYRTITL is less a traditional music release than a statement of dominance. Overlong, a little meandering, and more than a little indulgent? Sure. But this wasn’t designed to be Drake’s 4th LP. Views From The 6 is still on the way (“It’ll be January in no time…”), so this was just pregaming for the next chapter. Drake spent much of 2014 releasing SoundCloud loosies and guest verses, but for the top of 2015, on the anniversary of So Far Gone (the mixtape that put him on the map in the first place), he merely set out to remind everyone who was on top.
You can argue the authenticity of his voice, given the Quentin Miller scandal, but you cannot raise a hand to the impeccable run of these first five tracks. From the self mythologizing of “Legend” all the way up to the pithy, self satisfied “No Tellin,” Drake is effortless in a way that borders on infuriating. “Know Yourself” may not have had quite the memetic staying power “Hotline Bling” would come to possess in the fall, but for the first half of the year, when that “running through the six” drop hit, it was fucking ON. Before he went Instagram bully on Meek Mill and got dubbed over in endless Vines on your mom’s Facebook, Drake was in rare, enviable form. Yeah, it sags around the middle, and no one seems to appreciate “Jungle” for the gorgeous ballad it is, but Drake gave us moments back in February that we’re still running back. Maybe there were better albums this year, but my iTunes play count doesn’t lie.
— Dominic Griffin
9. No Cities To Love – Sleater-Kinney
The reasons I’m supposed to say I liked No Cities To Love: Sleater-Kinney hasn’t lost a step during their hiatus. Carrie Brownstein is still secretly one of the best guitarists on the planet and can still do those iconic kicks. The riot grrl genre may be more relevant now than ever. It manages to subvert every “reunion album” trope by being a continuation of their career rather than a rehash of old material. It is probably their most polished sounding album, clearly the result of a lot of care and improvements in technology, without sacrificing the emotion that makes them who they are. Their sound has evolved without sacrificing what their fans love or even departing from it too much. The overall musicianship is rock solid.
Don’t get me wrong. All of those are true and important and amazing.
The real reason I want to say I liked No Cities To Love: They made a music video for “A New Wave” featuring the Belcher family. I will never, ever understand why that video alone didn’t make many year end lists. Shouldn’t Bob’s Burgers + SK = Every Single Year End List? (Coming out in January is not an excuse.) We live in an unjust world sometimes.
— David Lebovitz
10. Every Open Eye – CHVRCHES
Like everyone else, I fell in love with “The Mother We Share” and that amazing cover of Arctic Monkeys “Do I Wanna Know?” that hit YouTube last year, which together launched Scottish indie darlings CHVRCHES into stardom, but I have to admit that the rest of their debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, did nothing for me. I gave it two or three listens straight through, and never felt attached to anything apart from the unstoppable pop smash that is “…Mother…” It wasn’t until Every Open Eye that I really fell for CHVRCHES as a band. Each song on Every Open Eye feels as vital and powerful as the best moments on Bones. The degree to which Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook, and Martin Doherty have grown as songwriters is measurable in the number of tracks from Every Open Eye that are capable of staying in your head all year. Highlights worth exploring: “Never Ending Circles,” “Clearest Blue,” “Playing Dead,” any of them worthy of reaching the hit single heights of “The Mother We Share.”
— Dylan Roth