Flood magazine: Best of 2015

By year-end year-end
updated over 3 years ago

Best Music of 2015 by the Flood Magazine.

  1. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly

    When Flying Lotus released “Never Catch Me” last October, we didn’t know that To Pimp a Butterfly existed. We didn’t know that it would yield a single whose chorus would become a protest chant. We didn’t know that that song would prompt Geraldo Rivera to label hip hop more corrosive to black culture than racism. We didn’t know that the album would open the door so wide that one of its backing musicians would be able to release a triple-stack jazz LP into the critical mainstream. What we knew was that the mighty Flying Lotus had put together one of his most challenging tracks—with a ribbonesque bass solo from Thundercat, no less—and that Kendrick Lamar drove it like he stole it.

    That’s no small thing. Kendrick’s gravity-defying 2012 LP, good kid, m.A.A.d city, showcased his talents as a storyteller and satirist, not to mention his ability to transform even the wooziest and most somnambulant of beats into pure vitality. But To Pimp a Butterfly, which dropped with little warning on the Ides of March, is something else entirely. For one, he sounds like he’s having way more fun. Make no mistake, this album is heavy with mourning, frustration, and anger, but Kendrick wears all of that darkness as though he’s already come through it. It’s the full-length fulfillment of “Never Catch Me”’s four-minute promise.

    That might be a function of Kendrick’s having nothing left to prove, but it might also be related to the album’s central theme, delivered point blank in the opening lines of “Alright”: “I’m fucked up, homie, you’re fucked up, but if God got us, then we gon be alright.” There’s a hope—ever more confounding in 2015, when everything seems to suggest otherwise—that the divine being not only sees oppression but acts to bring the oppressed to the other side. Coming just a few months after the criminal justice system failed to exercise its God-given duty to prosecute the police officer accused of murdering Eric Garner, and finding its footing in a year that’s seen our political discourse go from ugly to beyond the pale, such hope feels foolish, but Lamar, like any good prophet, makes it admirable.

    Of course, if all Kendrick had was his message, we wouldn’t be here. What helps To Pimp a Butterfly to transcend—but not abandon—its protest origins is that aforementioned sense of joy: he’s mad, but he ain’t stressed. Kendrick gleefully explores the topography of his beats, which come courtesy of everyone from Pharrell (“Alright”) to Boi-1da (“The Blacker the Berry”) to Thundercat and FlyLo themselves (“Wesley’s Theory”). Terrace Martin wrangles Kamasi Washington’s sax-led big band into a sizzling freeform in “For Free? (Interlude),” then he churns out the thickest groove of the year in “King Kunta,” the very next track. On the latter, Kendrick spins a goofy you-ain’t-shit taunt into a heady criticism of the past hundred and fifty years of US race relations with a flick of the verbal wrist and sounds like he’s enjoying the hell out of the whole thing. On the latter, well—if Donald Trump knew that braggadocio works better when it’s couched in self-awareness, the world might look a little different right now.

    It’s been a long time since a record that had this much to say about the world said it this well. It’s got a bone to pick. It loves itself. It’s protest music that’s being played in the White House. And in a year that’s gotten uglier the longer it’s gone on, that in itself is almost reason enough to believe.

  2. Tame Impala - Currents

    Breakups spur both halves of what was once a whole to change the way they perceive themselves. There are tears, insults, and the lingering chills of loneliness. Usually, these moments don’t instantly come with a sense of self-awareness, but not everyone is as comfortable with being alone as Kevin Parker is.

    Currents is Parker’s follow up to Lonerism, but it’s what happened in the silence between the last seconds of “Sun’s Coming Up” and the first warbling moments of “Let It Happen” that separates Tame Impala’s incredible sophomore album from their latest masterpiece: Kevin was in love, but by the time the lathe finished cutting Currents, he was already back out on the street and solo once again. This time, though, he’s seen the other side of life—where you actually care about someone else—and it has affected him immensely.

    At the end of “Let It Happen,” Parker knows that this breakup is for the best (“Baby, I’m ready, move along”), but it only takes two seconds of deafening silence for the anxiety to kick in. “But is there something more than that?” Parker asks over and over again in “Nangs.” Currents yo-yos back and forth between acceptance (“Yes I’m Changing,” “Eventually,” “’Cause I’m a Man”) and crippling obsession (“The Less I Know The Better,” “The Moment,” “Love/Paranoia”) with such ease that you realize you aren’t listening to Parker complain about his ex, you’re hearing his innermost thoughts. Even in the distorted spoken-word track “Past Life,” you’re swirling around Parker’s head as he recounts almost running into a ghost to his friends. It’s a mesmerizing listen that’s only compounded by the album’s unexpected falsetto, twisted psychedelic melodies, and infectious synth lines.

    Currents is Parker’s most personal album because he brings you into the aftermath of this breakup with him. He carries you along for both the hellish ride and the welcomed epiphany in the middle of “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”: “And I know it seems wrong to accept / But you’ve got your demons, and she’s got her regrets.” He’s still alone, but now he knows that he doesn’t have to be.

    The album’s sultry grooves stick with you, but it’s the thoughtful, nuanced lyrics that pop up in unexpected ways—like the lost lover who haunts the corners of your mind.

  3. Matthew E. White - Fresh Blood

    Since arriving from the planet Spacebomb in 2012, Matthew E. White has received his fair share of comparisons to the great Randy Newman. Despite his fundamental lack of bellbottoms, those comparisons are valid to the degree that White does reveal himself—particularly on Fresh Blood, his spellbinding second LP—to have a keen knowledge of Newman’s playbook. There’s the song abstractly eulogizing public loss (“Tranquility”), the song moderating a conversation between an everyman and God (“Circle ’Round the Sun”), the song using surreptitiously strange metaphors for sex (“Fruit Trees”), and—well, if you’re not sold yet, just know that a few years ago White literally went unsolicited to Newman’s doorstep to present what would eventually become his debut Big Inner. (Mr. Newman was not immediately available at the time.)

    That said, respecting your influences and becoming a slave to them are two entirely different things, and to simplify what White is doing with his music—not to mention with his Spacebomb studio and label—as a pastiche appropriation of Newman and various other artists (Curtis Mayfield, Dr. John, Isaac Hayes, etc.) would be a tremendous error. “Please don’t misread my vision / I’ve seen things I can’t explain,” sings White on the chorus of “Vision” as he’s joined from out of freakin’ nowhere by a swell of horns and vocals. In the world of Fresh Blood, the roads of our cultural past all intersect—often in unpredictable and unexplored ways. And somewhere in Richmond, Virginia, White has built a glorious interchange very much his own.

    It’s somewhat surprising that this record—a legitimate treasure of sonic maturity sermonized through a voice of crisp wonder—was not received on a wider scale to be the revelation that it is. In another time (hint: the ’70s), White would be a superstar already. But it’s probably for the best that Randy Newman didn’t answer his door that day. There is no greater pleasure than to hear Matthew E. White knock it down.

  4. Kurt Vile - B'lieve I'm Goin Down...

    Putting someone like Kurt Vile in a ranked list always feels a little odd. His music, while routinely excellent, exists entirely apart from the work of his indie rock contemporaries. Vile’s distinct brand of quirky, whimsical folk can only come from an artist unconcerned with any scene or modern convention. The Philly songwriter has carved out such a distinguished niche for himself that any imitators of his lucid-dream lyrics or dazed, unpretentious vocal delivery would be spotted a mile off. It’s the kind of unique and likeable persona that gets your home city to declare an official day in your name.

    But for all his idiosyncrasy, Vile manages to maintain an admirable lack of control over his own art. With b’lieve i’m goin down…, he creates his own world and then wanders absentmindedly through it, like Walt Disney taking a pleasant stroll through the Magic Kingdom. Whether he be on a spiritual pilgrimage (“Wheelhouse”), penning love letters (“Stand Inside,” “Wild Imagination”), confronting hard truths (That’s Life, tho”) or in the throes of an identity crisis (“Pretty Pimpin”), Vile always comes across as a polite but curious guest in a home he doesn’t recognize as his own. We’re lucky his world occasionally overlaps with ours.

  5. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

    Carrie & Lowell—Sufjan Stevens’s seventh conventional album in a long line of releases that include Christmas LPs and one-off projects—is a heartbreaking and, at times, unbearably painful account of his attempts to process the death of his mother in 2012. The considerable weight of Stevens’s grief is supported only by the light architecture of fingerpicked guitars and occasional keyboards, and is insulated by processed found sound that swells wordlessly between songs. He rarely raises his voice above a whisper. It goes without saying that this stuff risks being maudlin and overwrought, precious at best. But Carrie & Lowell is a miracle of aesthetic balance—a calm and considered confession.

  6. Wilco - Star Wars

    On Wilco’s eleventh LP, Jeff Tweedy has pushed forward as the definitive, driving force of the Chicago band once again—and by no coincidence, it’s his best set of music since the 2004 classic A Ghost is Born. Each song contributes to the portrait of a painfully professional songwriter, and each arrangement seems to emanate from a place of relaxed focus on behalf of the rest of the sextet. Nothing feels forced, and that’s likely because there was little to prove on this—a surprise, free album.

  7. Julia Holter - Have You In My Wilderness

    While it retains the magic of 2013’s conceptual jazz nocturne Loud City Song, Julia Holter’s fourth album finds her confidently stepping into her own as a storyteller. Newer, more eclectic influences—like Talk Talk’s eerie post-rock or the 1958 film Gigi—have seeped into her sound, but Holter’s animated voice and talents as a pianist remain at the core of what she does.

  8. Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Multi-Love

    Ruban Neilson’s mastered ability with soul and R&B is what separates Multi-Love from Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s previous releases. The seven-minute jam “Puzzles” eases from sound collage to deep disco beats and back out to an ornate folk final, and across the album, drums are either encased in fuzz or so solidly in the pocket, you’d think they were sampling breaks. While they’ve flirted with big moves beyond the bedroom psych realm before, Multi-Love really transports listeners into lush zones filled with hypnotic future-funk.

  9. Joanna Newsom - Divers

    Since her 2004 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, Joanna Newsom’s music has expanded into an orchestral whirl of melodic diversions, ten-dollar words, and that voice, which has grown into something more mellifluous than it once was. The kinds of fable-like songs that marked her early career are expanded on Divers into Joycean exercises. The title track, a seven-minute harp and piano excursion that converges Eastern melody and Western pop-ballad pageantry, feels like the pinnacle of her remarkable career.

  10. Battles - La Di Da Di

    As Battles enters their thirteenth year, the experimental group sounds more at ease than ever before. At no point in La Di Da Di does their sound come across as anxiously cluttered or antagonistically minimal; in fact, bleeps and bloops have never sounded so naturally birthed.

  11. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

    Last year’s international release of Courtney Barnett’s compilation The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas showed the Australian singer to be an innovative artist who knows to wring every possible drop of drama out of the most banal of sources. This spirit continues on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. With this record, she sidesteps any quaint expectations and delivers a true debut album that can surprise listeners with its depth and universality.

  12. Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper

    All the way down to its title, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper seems to mark the resolution of a sequence that began with 2004’s Young Prayer. As Noah Lennox takes us along on deeper and increasingly fluid explorations into the vernacular of electronic music, he’s somewhat paradoxically revealed a tether to the monastic origins of his singular vocal style. Put differently, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper shows that no matter how far out Lennox gets, he’s never far from home.

  13. Deerhunter - Fading Frontier

    Deerhunter’s seventh studio album Fading Frontier has all the markings of the typical “righting the ship” release. Whereas 2013’s Monomania was a gritty and bluesy blast of garage rock, the new album finds the band tinkering with more brightly festooned melodies. After some time in the wilderness, this is frontman Bradford Cox’s triumphant return, and it’s heartening to see the enigmatic singer back in the saddle.

  14. FFS - FFS

    That LA theater-pop lifers Sparks would team up with Scottish dance-rock revivalists Franz Ferdinand might come as a surprise initially, but upon listening to the supergroup’s excellent musical results, all doubts vanish. Not only does FFS make one sit up and take notice, it excites fans of either (or both) halves as they think about the potential experiments and releases of the future.

  15. Björk - Vulnicura

    Sure, Vulnicura is a breakup record, but Björk would never do anything so insipid as whine about a broken heart. In fact, the enormous visceral power of Vulnicura lies perhaps in its utter lack of pity play; she transforms every emotion into a monumetnal sonic peak or valley. As this stunningly affecting work once again proves, nothing—from monogamy to museum walls—could ever contain her tremendous spirit.

  16. Elvis Perkins - I Aubade

    Elvis Perkins’ third full-length, largely recorded by himself at home, finds the New York singer-songwriter sounding as if he’s deliberately avoiding the flowing melodies that define his first two records. It’s clearly by design—let the beauty and spontaneity of these songs sink in, and they just may consume you.

  17. Will Butler* - Policy

    On his solo debut, Arcade Fire’s Will Butler again and again demonstrates the talent for unexpected spectacle that he shows every night on stage with his main piece. In possession of the rare gift of Gano—the voice that can deadpan charm or unleash the ravings of a madman—he uses the spectrum to unleash frenetic, whiskey-lit Americana punk, a tempered and true love song, and artfully arranged dance-rock deconstructions.

  18. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear

    Josh Tillman’s second release under the Father John Misty moniker is a near-faultless crystallization of all of his competing interests. From the soulful gospel of “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” to the cherubic synth-pop of “True Affection,” this kaleidoscope of a release is brimming with ideas both batty and inspired.

  19. Thee Oh Sees - Mutilator Defeated At Last

    The nine tracks that make up Thee Oh Sees’ latest record are full of a vibrancy that transcends the age of their influences. It makes for a hazy dream of an album, one that both advances the band’s malleable sound and operates within it.

  20. The Mantles - All Odds End

    Three albums (and one EP) in, The Mantles are owning their outsider status, and rather than saying “Hello,” or shouting “What We Do Matters,” as they have done in the past, frontman Michael Olivares spends most of All Odds End muttering grandly about the poetic emptiness of it all. They may be firmly embedded in the Bay Area, but scene is irrelevant on this album—as it should be on any exceptional release.

  21. Jacco Gardner - Hypnophobia

    On Hypnophobia, his strong second album, Dutch musician Jacco Gardner tones down the saccharine and ornate details of his debut. The resultant sonic space brings his sound into the future and shows off his seemingly endless, ghostlike melodies and warm, groove-centered production.

  22. Nosaj Thing - Fated

    Jason Chung makes music for the dark—specifically, the infinite and impermanent moment just around midnight. For Fated, Nosaj Thing’s third LP (and second for Innovative Leisure), Chung explores all subconscious realms, capturing the weird, more sinister qualities of oOoOO, the ambient lushness of Clams Casino, and the crossover appeal of James Blake and Flying Lotus.

  23. Viet Cong (2) - Viet Cong

    Born from the tragic (and too, too soon) end of Calgary band Women with the death of guitarist Chris Reimer in 2012, Viet Cong’s self-titled debut continues an inescapable, momentous legacy. The ties that bind Viet Cong to its past may never be broken, but the band are not continuing a thread so much as they are stitching something entirely new from frayed ends.

  24. Leon Bridges - Coming Home

    Leon Bridges saw the road paved by Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and, instead of moving forward musically, took that road all the way back to the 1960s. But while he isn’t pioneering any new territory, Bridges easily transcends the domain of novelty with his convincing songwriting and undeniable talent.

  25. Big Grams - Big Grams

    The combination of Big Boi and Phantogram makes sense on the page—intergalactic words meet intergalactic beats, sounds about right—but it explodes off the record. The Outkast emcee and the LA duo hooked up for some sessions, got blunted, and threw down seven killer tracks. This thing moves like a brown stallion horse with skates on, ya know?