An unsystematic, incomplete recap of the music that stayed with me through 2015.
I got out of the year-end list business when I realized too much music came out that I didn’t hear for me to feel like my list had much authority. Time, temperament and mailing lists conspire to keep my listening from being broad enough to think that my Best Of choices might actually be among the best. Instead, I’ve reframed the question to talk about the music I’m happiest that I heard, the shows I’m happiest that I saw, and the books I’m happiest I read this year. To me, that’s what matters, and I made it by memory. I take it as a sign that something stayed with me to the the end of the year.
My favorite shows were Kendrick Lamar’s appearances in New Orleans this year. To Pimp a Butterfly felt three-dimensional when he performed material from it to close Essence this year and when he played the Civic this fall. Lamar’s Essence set Sunday night took place as the audience there for old school R&B and Mary J. Blige slowly filtered out, but Lamar made those who stayed feel like they were part of a community. His crowd work was granular as he spoke directly to individuals in the audience as if no one else was there, putting the focus relentlessly on us as he played a powerful show that made me feel sorry for everybody who left.
Essence’s empowerment through Christianity subtext also seemed more contemporary and relevant as filtered through Lamar than most of the other headliners. In his set, it was part of his conflict—how do I stay true to my faith in this world? How does my faith prepare me for all of this? At the Civic, it was his strength and gave him moral force as well as the artistic assurance to meet on even footing an audience ready to love the hell out of him. Lamar had to pull together the audience’s energy in the Superdome; at the Civic, he had to brace himself for its raucous enthusiasm. That love freed him up to be more of a showman, but not so much that he ever lost his center. It helps that in “I” and “Alright,” he had two of the most anthemic tracks of the year, with “King Junta” just behind. In those performances and his appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, it didn’t just feel like we were watching someone become a star; we saw someone make every moment of our attention that he had matter.
Earlier today, Justin Picard posted his favorite songs of 2015, and like him, I found the year to be far more about songs than albums for me. I love a fully realized album, but I’m equally excited by someone with three or four killer minutes. Another Essence performer—Erykah Badu—won the “Hotline Bling” derby with her version of the Drake hit (which is on the finally-released But You Caint Use My Phone mixtape). I enjoyed Galactic’s Into the Deep, but it collectively isn’t as exciting as “Right On” with Ms Charm Taylor fronting the band like she’s Ms James Brown. Denver’s Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats deservedly blew up this year, but nothing on else on their self-titled album had the same garage-soul explosiveness of “S.O.B.” Total Cultura by Providence, Rhode Island’s Malportado Kids was as addictively abrasive and confrontational as anything I heard last year with its angrily shouted Spanish lyrics and harsh electronic textures on top of dance beats, but “Soy La Pocha” alone gave me the thrill that good punk always does.
Local electronic duo Teenager will be known as Von Mozes starting in the new year, but I listened to their “Live Fast” a number of times the hour it landed in my inbox. Similarly, I like Val Hollie’s self-titled debut EP, but I think I played “Standing Outside” four or five times in a row, knocked out by the efficiency and classic appeal of its Something/Anything?-like pop.
Judging by our Freshly Spilt Milk Soundcloud playlists, you’d think my Artist of the Year is the brilliantly named Fro-Yo Ma. The New Orleans bedroom producer was prolific, recording tracks that clearly come from hip-hop but stand alone as miniatures that are as much about texture and melody as grooves. His tracks are almost automatically dreamy and subtly psychedelic—so much so that he seems to live in his own musical world, while on track after track, it was clear that Quickie Mart lives in the national one as he cut tracks and did remixes that can stand with bangers by the big names in EDM. In hip-hop, Alfred Banks spent the year launching his Underdog Central brand, and “Homecoming” is a solid track to launch with.
Since Pell’s Floating While Dreaming was one of my top albums last year, it’s not surprising that I’ve returned to his recent album, Limbo, a fair amount. TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek produced it, so now he sounds like music for parties more than music for nods. It still sounds like Pell though, and since Limbo’s release he has continued to filter out tracks on Soundcloud that retain the psychedelic spirit of Floating While Dreaming, I’m sure because producers Playgroundz and Staccs—who worked on his first album—were on board for these tracks too. At the other end of local hip-hop spectrum, Sess 4-5 and Hot Boy Turk dropped “Maxed Out,” which sounds like classic a Cash Money-era track.
I did actually listen to albums and EPs this year. Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell is a powerful and beautiful meditation on loss, while Wilco’s Star Wars was perfectly Wilco. The free download release of the album was a surprise, as was its immediacy. The band remains sonically thorny and the songs remain tests, but they also pay off with relative ease on Star Wars. It’s a tribute to the songs’ accessibility that the band opened the shows on its tour with the album played in sequence. GIVERS’ New Kingdom didn’t get the same love that the band’s debut In Light did, but that’s what years between releases does in 2015. New Kingdom isn’t as bright or African or cheery as In Light, but I didn’t miss any of those characteristics and found the songs more distinct. Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys’ Voyageurs was produced by Feufollet’s Chris Stafford, and like Feufollet’s Two Universes, it’s the product of a band so comfortable in its Cajun skin that it can take formal liberties without sounding overly deliberate. Both albums sound like natural expressions of bands with Cajun roots that have normal, healthy interests in the broad spectrum of music in the world, and they sound as fresh as any electronic dance music because of it.
I semi-overlooked Chef Menteur’s III because I already had much of it, and shouldn’t have since many didn’t. The one disc I didn’t know, Force Majeure, is the least essential as it almost sounds like a different band with tracks that for the most part start as ’80s dance rock with the bass player driving the song. It’s all fine, but it’s not the space rock that has become the band’s signature. In 2012, the band released East of the Sun, West of the Moon as two vinyl albums, and they had enough leftover material to release the equally long North of Tomorrow, South of Yesterday to the Kickstarter supporters who contributed money to help the album reach completion. Remarkably, it all holds up. You can hear Can, Neu, Pink Floyd, countless drone pioneers, as well as every ‘70s guitarist and keyboard player who set out for the far reaches of space, but it coheres as one distinctive musical voice. I’ve always thought it was a shame that space rock is such a specific thing and that Chef Menteur doesn’t have a larger following because the music on these three discs would sound remarkable in a large space.
I’m interested in The Deslondes’ debut album on New West, and I appreciate the way they’ve made their Dust Bowl Americana sound Louisiana born and bred. I’ll be more excited when the songs speak to the time and not just the place we live in, but they have my attention. I’m similarly intrigued by Sarah Quintana’s effort to make Frenchmen Street swing speak to her experience on Miss River, and I often find her magical as she flits lightly through her songs, letting a line like “a miracle all around” sound like another love song instead of a comment on the ecosystem that gets a shout-out in the album’s subtitle.
Ladies & Gentlemen … Nigel Hall often spoke to me, particularly when he sang economical, soulful songs like “Gimme a Sign” and “Never Gonna Let You Go.” Points for covering Latimore’s slow jam “Let’s Straighten it Out,” but points deducted for de-sexing a song that I always took to be about fucking away the confusion.
Perhaps an edited Cooke song would deliver a more powerful punch, much like when R.E.M. finally decided to let people hear what Michael Stipe was saying, but I doubt he’d get the sort of weird emotional whip that starts “Keep On.” An electronically processed voice laughs mockingly then stutters out a few “I”s, and it sounds like a found vocal that will be used ironically. But the stutter resolves into the phrase, “I’ve got to go keep on trying,” and when a simple piano line answers him, the song becomes a naked self-pep talk about the need to get back in the romance game. Like The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, Cooke gets emotional mileage out of a plainspoken vocal, perhaps more than he might because my guess is that the processed vocal hides his limits as a singer. Even if it doesn’t, the fuzzed, processed voice literalizes the singer’s turmoil as he tries to open his heart again while putting on a front.
I’m similarly intrigued by +Aziz, whose Soho Spirit EP nicely negotiates the musical intersections between rock, the singer/songwriter tradition, and his upbringing in his native Kuwait. He sings in Arabic and English and melodically splits the difference between all the notions of melody he grew up with, which means Soho Spirit seems exotic and familiar at the same time. I want to hear what happens to his songs as he fleshes them out with fuller musical presentations.
I’m not entirely on board with Woozy, but Blistered’s shaggy musical ambition has my attention. Singers slide up or down to notes and fight their way through the shitstorm of fuzzed guitars, and the songs amble down paths of their own creation rather than adhere to any conventional verse/chorus structure. That makes them harder to focus on, but it all sounds a series of intentional artistic choices, and moments that snap into focus—whether a lyrical passage or a crushing mass of guitars—keep me in the game for another song or two.
I was sorry that I got too busy to review City of Timbres by Aurora Nealand and Tom McDermott. McDermott’s such a reliable songwriter and piano player that it’s easy to take him for granted, but his barrelhouse piano makes a song as familiar as “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” an exhilarating rush. Nealand matches him with countless wise, subtle musical decisions, adjusting her vocal delivery to not only suit the song but moments in the song. Nealand and McDermott cover a lot of ground—some of it expected from the two, some of it less so, such as the cover of Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame”—with assurance, intelligence and obvious chemistry.
I have to say, much of the music that excited me the most came from other countries. (Is that how my punk manifests itself today? By celebrating the foreign “other” when Republican presidential candidates are competing to see who can be against them the most?) The Brasileiro Treasure Box of Funk & Soul is a compilation of psychedelic music from 1970-1975, though judging by the tracks here, it took a few years for records to get to Brazil. The results sound more influenced by American R&B from the late ‘60s, and they’re solidly funky (more so than it’s soulful).
As I wrote in my piece on the DJ El Dusty earlier this week, I loved a lot of “global club” )according to my iTunes library) including a compilation of Peruvian “Boom” music, and tracks by Portuguese producer Branko, formerly of Buraka Son Sistema. Hearing the metallic electronic percussion and substrata bass of EDM mix with other rhythms and sensibilities was constantly compelling, and Branko’s “2 Nice” is a great example. I wish “Louca” by Branko illuminated another point worth making because I’d like to mention his collaborator on the track, MC Bin Laden. Oh well.
Japanese pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu released her album Pika Pika Fantajin in 2014, but for some reason I didn’t listen to it until January and because the video for “Kira Kira Killer” is so out of control, it made the cut. The song is a mad mix of pop hooks and rock energy, and I always enjoy the cheerleader spell-out that sounds like “F-U-C-K!” But the video takes that sugar rush to a different level. She’s chased by a mad Kachina doll, shat out by a snake, and discovers the Theory of Relativity in a dress designed by Krispy Kreme. How could any video be better, much less contained by one year?
If you’re considering purchasing any of this music, do so through the links in this story and My Spilt Milk gets a piece of the action. It’s a win-win situation.