(In what has become an annual tradition as we near the finish line for our LISTMANIA series, our good friend and long-time NCS comrade BadWolf (aka Joseph Schafer) takes a break from his responsibilities at Invisible Oranges and brings us his year-end list of top non-metal albums from 2015.)
My duties as editor of Invisible Oranges keep me from writing on No Clean Singing as much as I’d like (that being, pretty much at all) but this site still feels like home. I think, for the first time, this is the only article I wrote for Islander in the past twelve months. That said, it’s still my favorite piece to write.
If you’re interested in my metal top 10, it lives here at Invisible Oranges. Look at the comment section for a little snark from our beloved Andy Synn. It’s ok, buddy, I don’t like most of the bands on your list, either.
Maybe Synn and I will have more in common outside the realms of metal. That said, some of these records are quite heavy — a couple made it into the metal top 10 lists at Invisible Oranges. I excluded them for the sake of having a more cohesive metal list of my own.
I also left out a few perennial favorite artists of mine. Both Lana Del Ray and Tyler the Creator followed up their previous masterpieces with lukewarm albums. Lukewarm also describes my attitude toward hip-hop as a whole this year. For a minute there, I was considering shifting to that genre as my primary critical focus, but that must have just been all the Run The Jewels talking, because for my money, hip hop in 2015 sucked.
I know that the new Vince Staples album is supposed to be straight fire, but I haven’t had a chance to listen yet. I will though. Of all the ex-Odd Future members, he seems to be the one with the most promising future ahead of him. I ought to have spent more time with Death Grips’s Jenny Death, but that album failed to hold my attention. Noisey and quite a few other publications would have you believe that Atlanta’s Future, who released three (!!!) mixtapes this year pretty much saved the genre, and that Drake’s If You’re Reading this It’s Too Late is some kind of pop-rap masterpeice. I hated all three of Future’s tapes, and I double-hated the Drake album (even though it did give the world the “Abbathline Bling” .gif). Fuck, even when I thought I could count on Freddy Gibbs to give the whole genre a cold shower, he tried to pull a Drake himself and… ugh… sings on much of Shadow of a Doubt.
Emcees, please, just hire somebody else to sing your hooks. I bet Sleepy Brown still needs money now that the Outkast reunion is officially over.
Now there is one hip-hop album from this year that stands to be one of the most critically acclaimed pieces of music the genre has produced. It’s good, it’s even on my list, but I still walked away from it a little disappointed.
Pop music, on the other hand, had one of the finest years I can remember. It took me a while to get around to last year’s Charli XCX record Sucker, but that album was a huge part of my 2015. I’m only now beginning to feel the power of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion as well. Neither quite made my top 10, but the album that tops this list… might be one of the best pop albums I have ever heard.
Without further ado, look upon my top 10 not-metal albums of 2015, ye mighty, and despair!
10. Killing Joke – Pylon
Any time Geordie, Youth, and Jaz collaborate is cause for celebration, but Pylon especially rustles my jimmies. While I’m ecstatic that Killing Joke still put out albums after 37 years of turmoil, and that their output keeps getting heavier, their last album, 2012’s MMXII left me a little cold, especially in the shadow of their towering 2010 masterpiece Absolute Dissent.
Killing Joke records always consist of multiple jarring bouts of vitriol and paranoia, but songs like “New Cold War” and “I Am the Virus” rank among the most vicious tracks in their discography. On the whole, though, Pylon isn’t nearly the depressing slog that some of their other self-consciously ‘dark’ album (ahem, Hosannas from the Basements of Hell) are, thanks to a few more upbeat numbers like the anthemic “Euphoria” and power-poppy “Big Buzz.”
9. Autre Ne Veut – Age of Transparency
Autre Ne Veut’s Arthur Ashin has a direct line into the sexual-musical circuitry in my brain. My top not-metal album of 2013 as listed on this site was The Weeknd’s Kiss Land, but that’s only because I didn’t hear Ashin’s last album, Anxiety, until the next year. If you take one thing away from this list, please let it be how badly you need to listen to Anxiety. To my ears, Ashin’s last experimental foray into R&B might be the best pop album of the decade. I like it the same way I like Purple Rain.
As such, I don’t blame Ashin for delivering a more difficult and obtuse record two years later. Ironically, Age of Transparency takes great pains to obscure the clarity of its predecessor. Ashin constructed the album from a library of musical samples, some culled from a series of nights he spent with a jazz trio, and hell, some even from songs on Anxiety. He then chopped those samples up, brought in a choir of guest singers, and made another anthemic pop record, this time a noisier and more depressing one.
It took me weeks to digest Age of Transparency, but I found diamonds in the jarring rubble of what came before. “Panic Room” is easily as powerful as the best tracks on Anxiety. Better, though, is the filthy dance track and bisexual pride song “Switch Hitter,” the single sexiest song I heard all year.
8. Dr. Dre – Compton
What a surprise. It’s not just that nobody expected Compton to exist, it’s that nobody expected it to be good, either.
Some backstory: Dr. Dre announced his third album, Detox, when I was still in junior high. That album never saw the light of day, and maybe that’s a good thing, because whenever Dre did leak a track I found it to be… pretty awful. Apparently Doc agreed; he scrapped every piece of Detox and cranked out Compton as a soundtrack for the film of the same name, which documented his time in seminal hip-hop group NWA. The movie may be only alright, but the album is everything I wanted from a new Dre record.
Maybe the single most influential beatmaker of all time, Dre pulls out all the stops on Compton, spending some time in the G-funk sound he pioneered but also pushing into new territories. I’m no dubstep fan, but the drop in “Genesis” might be the most immediately satisfying moment I had listening to an album this year.
Dre always displayed more skill behind a mixing board than a microphone, and so has developed a knack for getting amazing verses out of his guests. That remains true: Snoop Dogg and Xzibit shed their fuddy dad-rap personas for the first time in years to deliver two absolutely savage verses on Compton. Not to be outdone, Kendrick Lamar, already a star in his own right, drops several jaw-dropping –and straightforward by his standards–verses here as well. Listening to him try and bait Drake into a public battle was one of my favorite musical pastimes in 2015.
The big reveal, though, is just how advanced Dre’s own rhyming has gotten. He’s still not a very technical rapper, but he’s learned how to spit with more variety than before, and for the first time sounds like he’s keeping pace with his own beats instead of lagging behind.
7. Grave Pleasures – Dreamcrash
Beastmilk’s debut Climax is the second album from 2013 which would have made it onto my year-end list that year had I heard it before 2014. It took a few listens to click, but the band, fronted by Mat “Kvohst” McNerney (ex-Code, ex-Dodheimsgard, Hexvessel), created a clever little slice of Joy Division worship with insane amounts of replay value. Beastmilk is now no more, but McNerney has filled in the blanks with Linnea Olsson on guitar and Uno Bruniusson on drums, each veterans of The Oath and In Solitude respectively. After being rebranded as Grave Pleasures, the new outfit crafted Dreamcrash as a more varied, glossier follow-up to Climax.
Like its predecessor, the album took a while to sink in: McNerney’s histrionic singing and melodramatic lyrics can be a lot to take in, and many of these new songs sacrifice Beastmilk’s focus in favor of some odd experiments, like the bluesy “Crooked Vein,” and the Dead Kennedys-esque “Futureshock.” When they button down and focus on great songs, however, Grave Pleasures still write some of the most potent post-punk of recent years. I could listen to “Crying Wolves” and “Girl in a Vortex” for hours.
6. Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss
Ms. Wolfe’s cryptic allure pales in comparison to her work ethic. The LA Songwriter continued her streak of releasing an album every year in 2015 with Abyss. Wolfe flirted with metal on each of her previous records going back to 2010’s Apokalypsis, but flirtation might be too weak of a word to describe what she’s doing with Abyss. If her first albums were drunk-texting and last year’s Pain is Beauty was a playful peck on the lips, then this album is a full-on makeout session with tongues sliding over one another and all.
Wolfe’s guitar sounds like a solid, twisted mass this time around, as opposed to her earlier more atmospheric approach, but the single heaviest part of her newest soundscape is a punishing sub-bass array. A good sound system could turn this album into a crowd-control weapon. Still, Wolfe keeps just shy of going into full-bore doom territory. Beneath the aural assault she is still writing the same tormented folk songs she was before, though the metallic elements seem to have emboldened her vocal delivery. Now she’s singing more clearly than before, and when her singing and the soundscapes strike a perfect balance – as on “Survive” – she’s a force to be reckoned with.
5. Circuit Des Yeux – In Plain Speech
Wolfe isn’t the only metal-aligned singer-songwriter to harness distortion and a distinctive voice in the service of painful self-disclosure this year. Haley Fohr’s vibrato-crazed baritone lodged itself in my forebrain after one listen to “Fantasize the Scene,” one of the powerful songs that anchors her sixth release, In Plain Speech. I guarantee you have never heard anyone sing like Fohr.
She can play her ass off, too. The 12-string guitar work on this record is understated — hell the whole thing is understated — but recalls some of the best ’70s folk-prog in my record collection. Mostly, though, Fohr can conjure an emotion in a way that most songwriters never do. The feeling that I get from In Plain Speech hurts to feel, but begs to be felt, a kind of nostalgia for something that maybe never even existed. The album’s short runtime and instrumental segments lend it a kind of lovably incomplete feeling. Listening to In Plain Speech is like looking through a sketchbook left behind by someone you once loved that has now gone away.
Once you’ve listened to the record, I recommend checking out this short Fact magazine documentary about her work and her story. It’s a remarkable portrait of a great artist.
4. The Weeknd – The Beauty Behind the Madness
You must have been living under a rock to have missed “I Can’t Feel My Face,” the Max-Martin-produced mega-single that propelled Abel Tesfaye AKA The Weeknd’s second proper album, The Beauty Behind the Madness, to #1 in the US, UK, and Australia. I’ve been a fan of Tesfaye’s sexually perverse, goth-friendly, and self-loathing take on R&B since his earliest mixtapes, and absolutely adored his 2013 album Kiss Land. Tesfaye’s follow-up abandons most of what I loved about that album, though.
The long, progressive songs and dismal instrumentals? Gone. His histrionic self-loathing lothario personae remains, though. People absolutely hate Tesfaye, and I don’t blame them. The character he plays is a despicable lech as well as a whiney brat. Here’s every Weeknd song summarized: 1) I have no self confidence 2) I bed numerous women and take copious narcotics to cope with my lack of self confidence 3) I enjoy this behavior and so keep doing it though it doesn’t make me feel any better 4) I can no longer imagine myself outside of this behavior pattern 5) I still have no self confidence. Really, Tesfaye is a very limited writer, even though I empathize with where he’s coming from and enjoy hearing songs about it.
So why is this album at #4? Because these songs are just so fucking good. Tesfaye’s androgynous tenor intoxicates, and his beats, even when made by the most straightforward hitmaker in the music industry, contain an element of mystery absent for too long from this kind of blockbuster pop. Tesfaye still packs in the surprises, such as the jazzy outro to the kinda Police-esque “Losers.” “Earned It,” the song he lent to the 50 Shades of Gray soundtrack is sexy enough that I salivate while listening to it. “Prisoner,” his duet with Lana Del Ray, earns its titanic crescendo, and “The Hills,” god damn it, attacks the pleasure centers with an iron fist.
Tesfaye’s a dick, but I’m really glad he’s around. Now if he could just apply these hooks to the Kiss Land template I’d be a happy camper.
3. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
To Pimp A Butterfly was declared a classic before it even dropped and unlike many anointed kings will probably be remembered fondly. The critical acclaim that cascaded out of seemingly every corner of the internet when Kendrick dropped his third album nearly drove me to drink. I wanted to be a contrarian. I wanted to hate this album, even if I knew that “The Blacker The Berry” was the most important hip-hop song released this year (it is).
Well, I can’t hate it. Does it borrow a bit heavily from the early Outkast playbook? Yes. Is its predecessor, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City better? Yes. Is it full of filler and ideas that sometimes do not work? Yes. Is that fucking interview with Tupac Shakur at the end preposterous? Absolutely. Still, I can’t hate it. Lamar drank deep from the well of African American popular music, from jazz and blues and funk, and regurgitated his vision of what it’s like to be a black man in America right now that is so emotionally solvent that it cannot be ignored.
Lamar painted a self-portrait for us all, and invites us to find ourselves in him; to find ourselves spruned by indignant lovers (“For Free?”) and enamored of those lovers we ought not have left (“These Walls”); to find ourselves drunk on self-destruction (“U”) and adoring of ourselves as we should be (“I”); to find ourselves wealthy in many ways (“King Kunta”) and completely destitute (“How Much a Dollar Cost?”); to find ourselves aghast at America’s hypocrisies and what they make us do to one another (“The Blacker The Berry”) and also to find ourselves reassured that the howling evil wind that is life on this earth will not crush our human spirit (“Alright”).
2. Algiers – Algiers
To Pimp a Butterfly will soundtrack the African American struggle in the milennium for many people. Not for me, though (then again, I am not African American, but it is a struggle I find myself invested in regardless). No, that honor goes to last year’s Run The Jewels II, and while To Pimp a Butterfly is a decent companion piece, the self-titled debut by Algiers is superior.
I’ve never heard a band like Algiers before. They blend art rock as well as industrial elements with hard blues and gospel vocals. Every song they write sounds painful to sing, to play, and to write. Sometimes Franklin James Fisher’s singing rides on volleys of tyrannical drum machines, and sometimes it hums over a series of looped kicks and claps. One gets the sense that the album was made by, and with, hands and that every skin nerve and blood cell lost while making Algiers wound up on the record. It’s a bit heady, but never without a visceral thrill as well, and in any other year it would be my top not-metal album of the year.
1. Grimes – Art Angels
But this year, Grimes finally released her long-gestating third record, and I practically did a backlfip when I heard it.
There’s more details to be found on the web behind Claire “Grimes” Boucher’s trials and tribulations in making Art Angels. There’s a decent summary buried in this (honestly kinda bland) New Yorker profile. Long story short, Grimes’ last album, Visions blew up on the indie web and she had no idea what to do about it. She released a non-album single, “Go” two years ago. I loved it, but tons of her fans 100% hated it. For whatever reason, she scrapped the record that “Go” was to be a part of. In May she dropped “Realiti”, a single which she lost the masters for and expected everyone to hate, except they did not. People loved it. I loved it. She wound up re-making the song from the ground up and putting it on this apparently all-new (except for “Realiti”) album that is apparently all about the experience of killing that ‘lost’ record and the fickle nature of her fans/lovers/everybody.
Catch all that? Doesn’t matter. Take this away: Grimes is the best pop singer in the game right now. She’s exciting the way Kate Bush was exciting in the late ’70s… at least that’s what I imagine when I listen to her and then Bush. Both artists take an uncompromising stance on their own art, and unabashedly include great progressive tendencies in their work. Some might see Art Angels as a capitulation, but in a world where Beyonce needs 20 people to help her write a song while Grimes does most of the whole album by herself, such a statement seems nutty. This album brings the hooks and the twee pop choruses that Jay-Z’s management expects, but it also includes a rap about the female orgasm done in Taiwanese.
Hell, Boucher even drops into the death growl on the most bombastic track here, “Kill v. Maim.”
To evoke Samael, Art Angels is a ceremony of opposites. It’s the sound of all Boucher’s different personalities, imaginary friends and enemies, duking it out. It’s an album about dreams, their power to inspire, and their fleeting, inconstant nature. It’s also, after years of hazy songwriting, a clear statement of intent, as per the last lines on the record: “If you’re looking for a dreamgirl / I’ll never be your dreamgirl.”
But I don’t want a dream. I want the inane banality and paint-by-numbers zeitgeist that is Aerican pop music post-1998 to be a dream that I wake up from. If I’m lucky Art Angels is my alarm clock, and if not, it’s still a gorgeous suite of earworms that elicit some kind of small, basic emotive response from me. Long live Grimes.