Sound advice

The RN&R’s resident music geek picks his favorite albums of 2015

Here's my standard disclaimer: This is a subjective list of my favorite new music discoveries of 2015. There's no pretension of absolute objectivity. I love discovering new music and turning friends on to new music. So this is just a tool for musical discovery. These are 10 albums from 2015 that I'll be bringing with me into 2016. I write about albums, as opposed to individual tracks, because I believe in long attention spans. Maybe you'll stumble on a record you'll like—or maybe you'll just discover, as has happened many times in the past, that you and I have vastly different tastes in music.

The Gotobeds: Poor People Are Revolting

This is a great little punk record. This band sounds very influenced by the British post-punk group The Fall, which is always a good thing in my book. But the real reason this record is guaranteed a spot on my year-end list is that it has one of the best album titles ever. Are the poor people disgusting? Or are they rebelling?

Disasterpiece: It Follows

My favorite movie soundtrack of the year is this album of dread-inducing electronic sounds. Be careful not to listen to it while driving, though, because it'll have you convinced that every pedestrian is a monster in disguise.

Kurt Vile: B'lieve I'm Goin' Down

Music is funny. Sometimes I have to be in the right mood, at the place, in the right headspace, to connect to something. That's why a list like this is subjective by necessity—it's one person's music appreciation diary. The first couple of times I heard this record, I dismissed it as boring. And then one day, out of the blue, I woke up with “Pretty Pimpin,” the lead-off track, stuck in my head and then the record's modest, folksy, low-key charms appeared suddenly vivid. Often, the best music takes a little time to reveal itself.

Ghostface Killah & BadBadNotGood: Sour Soul

I'm a sucker for all things Wu-Tang. The insanely prolific Ghostface is probably my all-time favorite rapper. Lyrically, he's had finer hours than this record, but it's nice to hear him backed by such a tight, atmospheric band. The jazz/hip-hop combo BadBadNotGood is locked in, on point, and in the pocket throughout.

Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love

Comeback of the year! Ten years after their career-best album, The Woods, the women of Sleater-Kinney are back with a face-melting, sing-along-ready rock record. It’s funny to me how many Portlandia fans seem to have no idea that star Carrie Brownstein has a whole other career as a kick-ass rocker.

Jim O'Rourke: Simple Songs

In some ways, Jim O'Rourke is the musical equivalent of an actor like Crispin Glover, a guy who shows up in supporting roles in blockbusters and then makes weird, volatile independent releases. A multi-instrumentalist, producer, recording engineer, singer and songwriter, O'Rourke has made crucial contributions to high-profile releases by bands like Wilco and Sonic Youth, and his own discography is vast and varied—ranging from instrumental electronic drones and complex orchestral suites to rock blow-outs and carefully crafted pop songs. This album is as poppy as he gets, drawing inspirations from '70s pop icons like Elton John, Randy Newman and Steely Dan, but still strange and unpredictable.

Tame Impala: Currents

Some of my more rockist friends were initially disappointed by Currents which completes Tame Impala’s transition from guitar-driven psychedelic rock band to keyboard-heavy synthpop group. But here’s the thing: it’s an excellent synthpop record. The keyboard textures are warm and fascinating, and the vocal melodies are catchy. It helps that singer Kevin Parker sounds like a cross between John Lennon and George Harrison. And the record does rock—the rhythm section is on point and the rare moments that do feature guitar do so very effectively. Plus, the surreal, sexy video for “The Less I Know the Better” is the best music video I saw all year.

Protomartyr: The Agent Intellect

This album gets the 2015 Perfectly Attuned to Brad Bynum's Taste Award. This record combines two of my all-time favorite rock subgenres—1980s British post-punk and 1990s Midwestern noise rock—into a cohesive whole. Most bands that touch on those genres tend to deal almost exclusively with extreme emotions—agony, ecstasy, misery—but this record explores subtler, more nuanced emotions—forgiveness, sympathy, trepidation—complex grownup feelings.

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly

This record is the consensus favorite album of 2015 of music critics up to and including President Barack Obama. I don't think it's an unequivocal masterpiece, but it's pretty fucking fantastic. It's musical experimentalism is wild and inspiring, and, yeah, not all of it works, but the occasional failed experiment is the mark of true experimentation. The mix of jazz exploration, hip-hop bangers and Lamar's vivid, mercurial lyricism is undeniable. And the best tracks—like the James Brown-inspired funk stomper “King Kunta” or the defiant rave-up “Alright”—are as good as music gets.

Viet Cong: Viet Cong

The worst thing about Viet Cong is that controversy about the group's admittedly shitty band name overshadowed the fact that they made the best album of the year. The group was met with protestors and boycotters on the basis of the culturally insensitive band name. Four white dudes—from Canada, no less—should have known better than to cavalierly name their group after a defunct army from a horribly bloody war half a lifetime and half a world away, but that's what they did. And they found themselves recipients of petitions and banned from various venues. The group eventually relented and have said they will rename the band before the release of the next record.

Anyway, that controversy overshadowed the group’s music, which is too bad because it’s incredible. This record sounds downcast, moody and gloomy, but there are flashes of hope throughout. It’s in the post-punk wheelhouse, but is an unusual, even unique variant. There’s some Gothic crooning, spiky flashes of industrial white noise, chiming indie pop guitars, and other sounds that might seem familiar to fans of post-1980 rock music, but presented in counterintuitive formations. The songs are meticulously crafted—loaded with rhythmic and tonal changes—but the result is not a display of prog rock prowess but of complex emotional dissonance. These songs are simultaneously alien and comforting, heartbreaking and uplifting, hideous and beautiful.

But the real reason I like this album so much is the song “Continental Shelf.” It’s a perfect song, knotty and unpredictable, but seamlessly constructed, and pleasantly catchy. Everyone I’ve played the song for from the most battle-hardened old music nerd record collectors to my girlfriend’s 8 year old ABBA-loving daughter has had the same reaction: “Wow! Play that song again!”