In the intro to his memoir, Going Into The City, renowned music critic Robert Christgau astutely addresses the multitudes who consider criticism to be soul-sucking rat-fuckery. “Some consider criticism parasitic, and I agree that it’s secondhand—it recycles the energy of humans who have made the most out of the deep-seated human need to make something out of nothing,” he writes, “to add order and beauty to the inchoate world that radiates out from each of us. But in every culture some humans are better at this than others, and as cultures get more complex, the art they produce seems more inchoate itself. So criticism conjures order and beauty from that.”
Mr. Christgau weighs heavy on this critic’s heart, particularly when trying to conjure order for the obligatory year-end album list. After all, in the era of Yelp, aren’t we all critics? When different critics hold knowledge in different genres, isn’t the notion of someone being better than someone else relative? And that being said, is ranking music of different genres, attempting different things and intended for different ears in any way an honest indicator of quality?
Good music taps into something personal for both the artist and the listener—that’s true staying power.
This critic says “No!” And as such, we’ve done away with the mishegas of ranking all-together. At best, assigning numerical value to albums in a list is clickbait, a way to gain more traffic quickly. But at worst, it’s a power struggle, a bureaucratically sterilized and pored over debate between staffers of a publication, writers, editors and yes, often advertisers.
Since I’m the only one writing this particular list, let me humbly offer a new metric for evaluation: What are the albums of 2015 that are going to still ring in my ears next December? In the transient practice of creative consumption, music fans are often the greatest culprits—so often we heap praises upon something, only to cast it aside the minute something else fresh comes along. But good music isn’t just ephemera. Good music taps into something personal for both the artist and the listener, fusing an eternal bridge of meaning beyond simple genre or sound. That’s true staying power.
D’Angelo and The Vanguard, Black Messiah (RCA)
Technically, this third studio album in 14 years from reclusive R&B icon D’Angelo dropped last year, but alluded most year-end lists since it came out mid-December. It’s no coincidence that you see it on so many lists now—Black Messiah is a masterpiece of warm, live funk and soul, heralding the return of a musical icon most thought had left the limelight for good. D’Angelo reportedly rushed the production and release of this album to get it out as soon as possible following officer Daniel Pantaleo’s failure to be indicted for the murder of Eric Garner in Staten Island, and D’Angelo channels his rage through grooves that pop and sizzle with intimate immediacy.
His words have always retained a mystical power over love and sex, but on Black Messiah, they turn to the world at large. “All we wanted was a chance to talk, ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk,” he sings. “Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked, revealing at the end of the day, the charade.” D’Angelo’s performance of “The Charade” on Saturday Night Live featured his band in Black Lives Matter hoodies that read “I Can’t Breathe” and fists of solidarity, using the national platform of the show to communicate a message inherently more valuable. As the systematic, institutional racism of our nation unfortunately continues to hold police unaccountable a year later, D’Angelo’s words still feel fresh. Fortunately, we’ve got Black Messiah.
Belle & Sebastian, Girls In Peacetime Want to Dance (Matador)
Political in its own right, Belle & Sebastian’s Girls In Peacetime Want to Dance turns its pleas for pacifism not to any particular movement or cause, but to the dance-floor. How can you not dance to the infectious euro-trash of “The Party Line” or “Enter Sylvia Plath,” moments where the band seems penchant to not just indulge in the bookish, literary affectations it’s known for. Sure, on songs like “The Power of Three,” which evokes Sherlock Holmes to justify a threesome, Stuart Murdoch and co. look to their old nerdy ways, but the message of Girls is most triumphant when it acknowledges that some things about life just can’t be learned in books. “We are out of practice, we’re out of sight, on the edge of nobody’s empire. If we live by books and we live by hope does that make us targets for gunfire?” asks Murdoch in the opener. He never answers the question as to whether books or music can save us from violence. But they bring joy, and as such, they bring him peace. When he later sings “there is a deeper magic here,” we listen.
Joey Bada$$, B4.Da.$$ (Cinematic Music Group)
Nas was wrong—hip-hop never died, and 2015 proved it. Among the litany of forward-thinking minds to pick up a mic this year, Joey Bada$$ and his Pro-Era crew have a particular affection for ’90s New York, and made one of the strongest albums of the year by looking back. With its ready evocation of Wu Tang, Joey knows exactly what he wants “Paper Trails” to be, and at just over 20 years old, his love of the sound is sincere and heartfelt. “My mama just be smiling, cause she know I got my back, ain’t gotta worry,” he raps on “Curry Chicken.” “Only thing she ask is that I hurry, home in time for Christmas for some dinner.” Nearly a year later, it’s almost Christmas and Joey is still bumpin’. Not only is he home—he’s sticking around.
Viet Cong, Viet Cong (Jagjaguwar)
There’s not much to say about Viet Cong’s self-titled record that the band doesn’t say itself. The debut album of a promising post-punk band from Calgary, this is challenging, dense music, evoking Krautrock legends Can, that makes no concessions for singles or easy melodies and instead challenges listeners to take it all in. The album is a delight, though, and the epic “March of Progress” best encapsulates why. Get through three minutes of droney white-noise, allow the melody to emerge, and you see what the band is up to. “Slowly, this repulsion leads to nausea, and fear for these old forgotten halls,” sings Matt Flegel. “Maybe you just need someone to keep you warm, with fire coming from a different sun.”
It’s art in the truest sense, aware of its rough edges and implementing them not just for effect, but for meaning. The song later asks, “Tell me, tell me, tell it to me, tell it straight: what is the difference between love and hate?” and therein lies the question of all criticism. Viet Cong’s debut is an album that rewards deeper listens by asking what it means to listen deeply. And while it doesn’t offer an answer, the album proves that probing the true nature of why we care about what we care about is a reward in of itself.
Jamie xx, In Colour (Young Turks)
Fans have waited for years to hear a proper full length from Jamie xx, the principal beat-maker of sparse London pop-R&B act the xx, and…nothing. In late 2011 Jamie remixed the legendary spoken word artist Gil Scot Heron’s final album, I’m New Here, adding melodies and beats to make Mr. Heron’s words club-ready. Between that release, his DJ sets and fantastic BBC essential mix, electronic music fans knew a masterpiece lie in wait. This year we got it.
In Colour builds upon the sparse intimacy of his work with the xx, and songs like “Loud Places,” “Seesaw” and “Strangers In a Room” feature vocalists Romy and Oliver Sim from that band to bring it all home. But it’s the moments where Jamie is on his own (remixing Alicia Keys on “Sleep Sound” or Hugh Masekela on “Obvs”) that he elevates the samples to a house/rave/garage hybrid of his unique design, and In Colour sounds most unique. We defy you to not shake your ass to “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times).” Seriously, it can’t be done. This is EDM for people who are cynical about EDM. In Colour is a strong reminder that art still exists in a genre many consider to be disposable.
Kamasi Washington, The Epic (Brainfeeder)
As Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label forges the sonic history of Black music on a path into the spheres, jazz is understandably a huge part of the equation. Among talented players like bassist Thundercat (whose fantastic The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam was only omitted here for space) Kamasi Washington is in a game all his own, using his tenor saxophone as a tool to tell the history of jazz before propelling it into space. You may have heard Mr. Washington before, notably on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (more on that later, obvs) but on his three-hour masterwork The Epic, Mr. Washington succeeds a bandleader and composer on his own. Modal sounds of jazz are represented here, as are sounds of hard-bop and fusion, and Mr. Washington isn’t even afraid to channel the legendary Sun-Ra at times with such astral projections. But it’s songs like “Final Thought,” in which he blends these different periods and styles of the genre together seamlessly, that Mr. Washington simultaneously holds his forefathers in reverence while forging a celestial path to somewhere new.
Jenny Hval, Apocalypse, Girl (Sacred Bones)
I can’t decide if Jenny Hval’s third album is simple or complicated, and that’s a good thing. Casually dropping the words “cunt” over slow synthesized grooves, Ms. Hval’s third album finds her playing the loungey chanteuse, if that chanteuse sought to challenge conventions, reject the idea of being a lusted-after sex object and use the genre to subvert gender tropes. “I’m very interested in getting close to the audience through what I do with language, and how I use it in a musical context,”she told me before performance earlier in the year. “Tonight I’m presenting human failure, loneliness and other things.” And during a set closer to performance art than a traditional concert, Ms. Hval did just that—staining a wedding dress red in the crotch, wrapping her dancers in toilet paper, and staring at her iPhone while bouncing up and down on an exercise ball.
Apocalypse, girl withstands repeated listens because it does much of the same, from the male-ego-deflating opener “King Size” to the groovy “That Battle Is Over,” in which she cooly cries, “You say I’m free now, that battle is over, and feminism is over & socialism’s over. Yeah, I say I can consume what I want now!” This is strong, subversive stuff. Not just content with demolishing boundaries between what we consider music to be, Ms. Hval makes a good case for why they never ought to be built up again, too.
Protomartyr, The Agent Intellect (Hardly Art)
There’s something triumphant about Joe Casey, the singer of Protomartyr, fronting a band of dudes 10 years his junior. Clad in a suit and singing deadpan without a hint ostentatious, rockstar adornment, Mr. Casey is something else. At this year’s CMJ, he led Protomartyr to MVP status, as the band headlined showcase after showcase, wowing crowds with songs off their third LP The Agent Intellect released the week prior. That same dichotomy between seemingly detached singer and fiery, pummeling band is at work on the record, full of post-punk gems just angular enough to sound antisocial and just poppy enough to sound anthemic.
My favorite song is “Pontiac ’87,” when Mr. Casey tells the story of seeing the Pope in an arena, and scalpers selling tickets for money. “That fall from grace knocked me on my knees, don’t tell anyone, that’s what I wanted,” he sings in a sort of confession. The record is full of such seeming confessions, moments of intimate revelation being digitally distributed and heard by thousands of ears. As such, Protomartyr’s rising popularity is a similar blaspheme, one that suggests Mr. Casey feels at a loss sharing such personal moments of epiphany on a larger scale. Either way, we’re all better for them.
Floating Points, Elaenia (Luaka Bop)
I’ve mentioned jazz that redefines jazz and electronic music that redefines electronic music, albums eclipsing genres to exist as something separate and powerful. Elaenia, the debut LP of London DJ Floating Points, builds upon his prior reputation for jazzy, downtempo electro and forges itself into a genre all its own. This is a jazz album, pure and simple, under the guise of an electronic record. Sam Shephard helms his Rhodes piano and commands an astounding roster of talented musicians, including strings, horns, drums, guitar, the works, to produce an elegantly crafted and immaculately realized work of great beauty.
The seven tracks on Elaenia are intended to be heard in one sitting, and as they flow into each other the arc seems almost classical in execution. The organic tact with which In a Silent Way-era Miles Davis of “Silhouettes 1,11,111” folds into the understated spatial ambiance of the title track, or the groovy theme of “For Mamish” perfectly sets up the album’s climax (“Peroration Six”) are not the marks of a young DJ so much as the calling card of a meticulous, talented and thoughtful composer. Listen to this one on headphones, in the dark, and the larger intricacies of the universe begin to unravel.
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly (TDE)
Yes, Mr. Lamar’s glorious masterwork earned a place on this list (and on our 10 Best Hip-Hop Records of 2015 List, obviously) and of course you aren’t surprised. All the internet talk of To Pimp a Buttefly’s “blackness” as either a virtue or a deterrent, all the discussion about whether or not the album is actually good or simply full of enough references and allusions to facilitate any critic’s wet dream, all of it misses the point. This is the record of an individual’s journey, pure and simple. It’s also a journey that speaks to the past and the future of the black community through a litany of the musical voices pushing that future forward.
George Clinton’s shamanistic invocation at the beginning of the record is more than just a nod to his musical contributions, but an allusion to the institutional mire Mr. Clinton has found himself in to reclaim his own music’s copyrights. Arrangements and contributions from bassist Thundercat, saxophonist Kamasi Washington and pianist Robert Glasper amount to more than just a veritable who’s who of modern jazz innovators, but a group of players who simultaneously honor the musical legacy and traditions of past greats while boldly looking to the future. Kendrick sees himself in all of these men, and as such, To Pimp a Butterfly maintains the focus of a single vision even in its most collaborative, indulgent stretches. “Alright” became the anthem against police brutality this year, crowds singing the hook in a conducted call and response at Mr. Lemar’s few Kunta’s Groove Sessions shows, and the song speaks to Mr. Lamar’s ability to simultaneously write a hook and speak his mind.
“Hood Politics” hit upon the institutional polarization of our country, and Mr. Lamar’s survivor’s guilt at transcending it. “Ain’t nothin’ new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans/Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?” he asks the listener. In a time where so much music is preemptively deified, dissected and criticized in the Twitterverse, Mr. Lamar’s social media account remains moot, as he refused to troll, debase or dissect or demean or diminish. This music speaks for itself—To Pimp a Butterfly offers no easy answers, only a personal journey rendered public through a nation’s shared experiences. And therein lies its tremendous power.