Year In Review: 2015 Overlooked Albums

2015 EOTY List

2015 has been an incredible year of music, with a number of high profile records that I’ve spent a lot of time connecting with. They are not on this list.

Though I’ve been thinking about To Pimp A Butterfly since the night it fell from the sky, no one should need a recommendation from me to check it out. So instead of another End of the Year list with paragraphs about why Sufjan Stevens released a quietly perfect heartbreaker, I wanted to jump in with some of my favorite 2015 albums that might have flown under your radar. The first two write-ups are lengthy, but everything else is more to the point. I also include a few tracks under each section, in case you’re interested in hearing something immediately.

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Year in Review: 2015 Musical Superlatives

2015 EOTY List

Excited to spend the next couple weeks writing about my favorite underrated albums and songs. Here’s a few thoughts to kick it off before I go more in-depth with future posts.

Favorite Album
Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle

julien baker sprained ankle

If you haven’t listened to it yet, please do. My thoughts on the album are documented here.

Favorite Song
Jamie xx feat. Popcaan & Young Thug – “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”

Top 10 reasons I love this song: Continue reading

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Recommend Tracks: Jeremih

jeremih_-_late_nights_the_album

Why are we even pretending that we should listen to things besides the new Jeremih album? Late Nights: The Album dropped out of nowhere after more than three years of teasing fans, and it’s filled with so many incredible tracks that you should stop reading this and just throw it on.

Still here? Alright, here’s five of my favorites:

“Pass Dat”

I knew this album was going to be special as soon as I heard the doubled falsetto hook that kicks this off, which is designed to catch ears when you randomly throw it on at a Christmas party (like I’m about to do in an hour). The song’s blooping production feels like a low grade fever. After listening to it a few times, I’m struck by how minimal everything is kept. He finds this groove and just grinds it out. Jeremih’s singing delivery throughout the album feels like the natural complement to all of these rappers that are singing, carving out a singing lane that places so much emphasis on hitting those rhythmic swings.

“Oui”

Simplest hook ever, but clever enough that no one’s done it yet: “There’s no Oui without U and I.” This is possibly my favorite love jam of the year, and so many of its best moments are wordless (which feels appropriate). Those “Aww-yeah, aww-yeah, aww-YEAHs” that build out the background make for perfect singsongs, and the vocal breakdown in the song’s bridge is another gem of songwriting talent.

“Giv No Fuks [Feat. Migos]”

Are Migos secretly the most versatile rappers in the game? I’m still not convinced they have a distinct sound, but recent collaborations with Chance the Rapper, R Kelly, and now Jeremih have all created songs that feel like they’re pushing those artists’ boundaries while still seeming authentic. “Giv No Fuks” is an absolute banger, one of those songs you can put on from pregame to sun-up and somehow get more energy out of it each time.

“Woosah [Feat. Juicy J & Twista]”

One thing I’ve yet to mention about this album: like its mixtape predecessor, it is dirty as fuck. Jeremih loves to have sex, and reminds listeners of this fact on every song. Sometimes it comes off charming, sometimes it’s a bit cartoonish, and sometimes it’s just annoyingly insistent, a throbbing reminder of what Jeremih & co. think you should be doing. (J Cole and Big Sean both overstep with verses that get a little too graphic from rappers who aren’t good at that sort of thing, like those dudes at the party who are trying to kick game when they’ve had a few too many drinks.)

The culmination of this on Late Nights is “Woosah”, which is everything a sex jam should be: graphic, longing, assured, and seductive. From the first screwed-up vocal, it sounds like he’s already set the mood. (It’s completely intentional; there’s samples of a crackling fireplace in the background.) For five and a half minutes, Jeremih proceeds to sweet talk exactly what he wants and how, with double-take lyrics that have me simultaneously rewinding and blushing. And just when it feels like the—errr, session—is over, Twista comes through with a tacked-on verse that speeds everything right back up. It’s like a sex rhythm literalized in song.

Paradise

After a late night of debauchery, Jeremih sends the album off with the perfect hangover song. No drums or intricate production, just simple guitar arpeggios and Jeremih stacking some beautiful vocals to create an ode to that morning haze. “That was one hell of a party” he sings, and I’m right there with him.

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First Impressions: Pusha T – Darkest Before Dawn

Pusha T brings heat to late December with the best hip hop album of the year.

pusha-dove

Pusha T is the perfect artist to release an incredible album in December.

December is traditionally a weird time of year for the music industry. Most major publications have already released their end-of-the-year lists, and super fans are busy catching up on the obscure albums that NPR is telling them they missed. The Adeles of the world have put out their big Q4 releases in time for Black Friday, and there’s a general sense of being worn out on new music discovery. The month is a blur of taking stock in what we have or should have been listening to, with less noteworthy stuff coming out in the few weeks before the holidays.

Except, of course, for the one or two incredible albums each that come out of nowhere and completely rip the “traditional” paradigm up. Continue reading

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First Impressions: Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle

Julien Baker’s startling debut is raw emotion, one of the best albums of the year.

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Music like Julien Baker’s could save us all.

I wanted to let that breathe for a second, because I can’t think of the last time I’ve felt someone’s music speak to me on such a visceral level.

In my mind, the closest analog for Sprained Ankle‘s emotional nakedness is the Hotelier’s last record, though they couldn’t be further apart sonically. The Hotelier is clearly a full band effort, with music swelling and crashing around Christian Holden’s broken shout like wind around a tornado’s eye. There’s barely a drumbeat on Sprained Ankle. Julien mostly lingers over looping Elliott Smith-like guitar figures, perhaps a spare piano or string instrument. Every moment feels purposefully restrained, like she’s wrapping a string tight around her wrist over and over until it draws blood. It’s catharsis by contraction instead of cacophony.

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Poem: “flight”

the-dance-of-leaves-when-the-autumn-leaves-blow-joseph-brauer

flight

I don’t think when we die

that we go anywhere at all;

breaking down to sparest wisps

of dirt and seed.

It’s no different from the Leaf

who never chooses when to fall;

but only hopes his end is prolonged by

some revelatory Breeze.

So he can travel, ever-hoping,

to some field of no tomorrows;

breaking down the certain hand

of gravity.

And the same way that the Leaf

cannot curse the Hand that plucked him;

so as it goes for me.

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Recommended Tracks: Pell, Ellie Goulding, Julien Baker, & The Staves

Been working late a lot lately, so I wanted to do some quick hits on tracks that I’ve been loving to clear my head. Let me know if you dig any of them.

“Queso” by Pell
#1 Jam of the moment. The Latin-infused beat and hook remind me of D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha” in its left-field-proto-salsa charm. This song has so much more swag, though. It just goes, in a way that forces you to find new ways to dance. And I’ve found several: this little shoulder shimmy every time I hear those doubled vocals in the chorus; a weirdly fast head bop that looks like I’m trying to convince Pell to keep going; an involuntary singalong to the descending “I got, I got, I got”s in the song’s background that have gotten me way too many strange looks on my morning bus commute. Throw it on and shake.

“On My Mind” by Ellie Goulding
Such a percussive song to come back with as a first single. The verses and chorus just push, push, push forward at this clipped rate that you don’t hear much in pop music these days. I really love the way that the post-chorus vocal hook “you think you know some-boooody” is anticipated with a synth in the first two choruses, and the vocal drop builds tension without coming off as straight EDM cheese. Really good songwriting here (even if the video is a tad overblown). If the rest of her album has tracks this indelible, she’ll have a few more hits on her hands.

“Something” by Julien Baker
I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about Julien Baker all week. Her album Sprained Ankle hit me out of nowhere, with incisive, fragile songs that sound like pure desolation. Hopefully I’ll figure it out by next week, but for now I’ll leave you with one of the album’s more straining cuts. This live version of “Something” takes place in an empty parking garage, which feels appropriate to the way her lyrics echo into emptiness, more alone than you can imagine. If you give this video your full attention, you’ll be moved close to tears by the end. Or at least, I am.

“Sadness Don’t Own Me” by The Staves
I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the flawless vocal arrangements on the Staves’ second album, the perfect companion for days that are getting darker. If I Was is filled with harmonies that catch the light like icicles—crystalizing on top of each other and melting away again before finding themselves shaped anew. It’s partly a testament to Justin Vernon’s exquisite production (this is their first release on his label), but the lion’s share of credit has to go to the band of sisters who can conjure such stark, intimate beauty. Their three clear voices stack so close together that it feels like one person singing at times. The song’s got a lovely sentiment that befits a closing track on one of the year’s best albums about living with heartbreak. The closing atmospherics sound like they’re opening heaven.

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