Best of 2015.5 – PGM Staff
2015 has been a stellar year for music so far. To help you find any gems you might’ve missed, we’ve put together a compilation of our favorite records and tracks as well as what we can’t wait to hear next.
(Image from corewalking.com)
Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass
With every halting breath, Natalie Prass’ self-titled debut draws you in deeper. Each song gently wraps you in a web of horns and strings, but it’s Prass’ voice, at all times piercingly beautiful and deceptively haunting, that keeps you from trying to escape.
The Epic – Kamasi Washington
I love jazz. And while it has played a crucial role in music’s past, it too often feels like contemporary jazz doesn’t step up and maintain the genre’s importance in an increasingly competitive musical world (Thanks, dubstep!). Good news: Kamasi Washington’s The Epic both lives up to its name and serves as a forceful reminder of why jazz shouldn’t be seen as a historical relic. Coming to our attention for playing sax on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Washington stands out on his solo outing. If you’re not convinced, check out opener “Change of the Guard.” Over a thundering mass of piano, drums and strings, Washington’s ringing saxophone line leads the way. In the year 2015, jazz can still be cool, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens
Written and recorded in the wake of his mother’s death, Sufjan Stevens’ latest work faces an unanswerable question we all must face some day: “admitting the best is behind me.” Coming to terms with a parent’s death is never an easy experience, and Sufjan’s pained lyrics capture that with an eloquence that makes it his best album yet. Vivid anecdotes about being called Subaru by his swim instructor, or watching his mom leave him at a video store, are the types of snippets that bring his suffering to life — almost like a musical version of Boyhood, just more painful. Confronting the fear of the death of one’s loved ones should never be a pleasant task, but Sufjan’s emotional honesty on the topic makes the pain a little more bearable.
Solo – Nihls Frahm
Released for free to celebrate his own invented Piano Day, a.k.a. the 88th day of the year, Solo is a celebration of the power of an instrument rarely heard on its own. Perfect for a contemplative walk alone on the beach, or as unassuming background music while you write, Solo is equal parts enveloping and soothing, completely absorbing and a blank slate to let your mind wander.
“How Could You Babe” – Tobias Jesso Jr.
This song came into my life at a painfully fitting moment. Just a few weeks removed from a breakup to a girl who introduced me to Tobias Jesso Jr., the release of “How Could You Babe,” a heart-wrenching ballad about a failed relationship, was simply way too searing for me to handle. Sitting alone in O’Hare, listening to the song on repeat, I found myself sobbing, as Tobias pleads to his lost love, “Did you have some help deciding to forget my name?” It’ll never be an easy song to listen to, but the emotional honesty is exactly what you need when it’s time to move on.
“Broken Necks” – Eskimeaux
I had the pleasure of seeing Eskimeaux recently at the Subterranean in Chicago. Lead singer Gabby Smith introduced this song as a singalong to the audience, and thankfully the audience played along – with good reason. The spirited chorus, “While you were breaking your neck trying to keep your head up/ I was breaking my neck trying to stick it out for you,” captures the frustration and hope of a friend who’s constantly there for somebody else.
“Wastes of Time” – Elvis Depressedly
In my opinion, Elvis Depressedly has always been at their best at their absolute quietest. That much is clear on their recent album New Alhambra, particularly on the closing track, “Wastes of Time.” With only a simple acoustic guitar behind him, lead singer Mat Cothran’s voice strains and cracks underneath some of the most pointed lyrics you’ll ever hear. The repeated refrain, “If you try I will try/If we fuck up it’s alright,” is exactly what you need to hear when you’re young and confused and don’t know what the hell you’re doing in life. Sometimes you just need somebody to tell you things will work out, and “Wastes of Time” is a quiet reminder that life’s challenges can be overcome.
Chromatics – Dear Tommy
Chromatics have been slowly releasing upcoming singles to their latest album, Dear Tommy, over the past few months. Each song has divulged the band’s signature “electro-disco” sound, and even with the recent synth pop renaissance Dear Tommy should be a cut above Chromatics’ competition.
(Image from Vibe)
“Chasing the Art” – Wiley
As a consistent innovator of Grime, for the last 15 years, Wiley has benefitted from staying true to himself. His departure from the conventions of UK Garage years ago inspired countless other MCs that would later attempt to replicate his sound. With a considerably long history in the music business, “Chasing the Art” doesn’t seem dissimilar to an interview of sorts. Lyrically, WIley tackles his rationale for making music and his neverending pursuit of aesthetics and substance. This reflective tone is given intensity when the complex rhythms of the drums and percussion kick in. As the hook comes in, the instrumental grows sparse, helping the listener to catch Wiley’s opinions about what’s most important to him.
“Gettin’ Throwed” (ft. Towkio & Joey Purp) – Two Fresh
Hailing from LA, production duo Two Fresh have been making a name for themselves in a music industry that has never been more infatuated with the role the producer plays in creating a song. Their collaboration with Chicago rappers Towkio and Joey Purp proves to be a soundscape to go along with teen drinking. With the help of the endlessly catchy hook to accompany it, the jubilant instrumental could’ve stood on its own. Yet, together they form a song with infinite replay value.
“Then Comes the Wonder” – The Landing
I found this song while perusing through SoundCloud one day and I am very happy about it. Under the banner of Space-Pop, this song will take you on a trip through the solar system with wet baselines and periodic chimes. Here’s to hoping that The Landing continues to contribute to their newly created sub-genre.
“y u so dum” (ft. KeithCharlesSpacebar) – Slug Christ
I can’t help but think that the songs of Slug Christ are something Weird Al would’ve done had he been more privy to the nuances of hip-hop. Slug Christ’s songs often come across as ironic and lackadaisical, a refreshing departure from the seriousness of the genre at times. “Y u so dum” takes his apathy to an entirely new level, especially because a good portion of the lyrics are exclusively grunts. Yet somehow I find the song genius and consider it to be a guilty pleasure of mine, one that I refuse to feel guilty over anymore.
KANYEEEE. When will you appease us???
(Image from Nao’s Facebook)
February 15 – Nao
Nao came to my attention when she collaborated with A.K. Paul on “So Good,” but even that track pales to her work on February 15. The five-track EP is splendid, combining some of Paul’s more experimental practices with Nao’s unmissable star power.
No track does what you expect it to, which is what makes February 15 such an engaging listen. “Zillionaire,” with its wave of lilting synths sounds like an unreleased Jai Paul record, while “Inhale, Exhale” and “Golden” are undeniably catchy songs with crossover potential.
Nao is still growing as an artist and developing her voice, so if February 15 is her finding her foothold as an artist it’s going to be incredible to see her progress.
There’s Still Time For Us to Die – Deerpeople
I don’t even recall where I discovered Stillwater, OK band Deerpeople, but they’ve been one of my most listened to artists of the last two years. Their sound is a chaotic mix of organs, fuzzy guitars, and gorgeous vocal harmonies, topped off with the undeniable charisma of frontman Brennan Barnes.
They’re certainly a bizarre outfit, but There’s Still Time For Us to Die is quite possibly the most engaging album of the year for me. The band shows a tremendous sonic breadth while still sticking to their left field roots. “She Skates Boards and She Gets Real High” has shades of old school uptempo punk, while “Rusty & Michelle” is a beautifully sentimental slow dance dotted with strings and flutes.
Deerpeople are also deeply funny, with an attention to lyricism many contemporary bands lack. It’s not a record for everyone, but I strongly urge you to give TSTFUTD a spin.
The Night Took Us in Like Family – Jeremiah Jae & L’Orange
Jeremiah Jae is one of the most intriguing figures in alternative hip-hop today, but sometimes his solo work can be a little inaccessible. Pairing with producer L’Orange, who mans the boards on every track here, was a bold move that wound up paying off tremendously.
The Night Took Us in Like Family harkens back to a time period when a rap album was more like a crime novel. It’s a record filled with dark alleys, gunsmoke and narrow getaways.
While L’Orange sets the scene with vintage samples and some choice movie dialogue, Jeremiah Jae serves as the perfect narrator. He’s a gifted lyricist and his slow flow stays perfectly in the pocket here.
“Ice Obsidian” and “Underworld” in particular are pure Dick Tracy mystery, and the pair’s chemistry is evident on every second of the record.
There are plenty of high profile rap releases coming in the latter half of 2015, but it’ll be hard to dislodge TNTUILF from my year-end list.
Jerk at the End of the Line – Only Real
I heard Only Real for the first time with 2014’s “Pass the Pain,” and immediately understood why he was being hailed as England’s equivalent to Mac DeMarco. His single “Cadillac Girl,” is my most listened to single ever at a robust 1794 plays, so it’s safe to say that his debut LP was at the top of my most anticipated list.
There aren’t a lot of rock artists out there like Niall Galvin, the singer-guitarist behind one of the most enjoyable albums of 2015. Jerk at the End of the Line is a sensational blend of sunshine, psychedelic guitar riffs and 90s trip-hop breakbeats. It’s an ambitious record that hinges on Galvin’s presence behind the mic, and he delivers with a rapid sing-song delivery that ties the album together.
It drags a little at the end, but highs like “Can’t Get Happy” and “Yesterdays” are surefire mainstays of any summer playlist.
“Our Own House (Remix)” – Demo Taped
I like Misterwives. They occupy a very important kind of junk food pop niche that makes up a decent portion of what I listen to. That said, their music by itself has a pretty clear ceiling for me.
Demo Taped, a 17-year-old Atlanta producer and singer, was able to obliterate that ceiling with his remix of “Our Own House,” taking the upbeat but forgettable track and completely revamping it with a cavalcade of synthesizers and distorted vocals. The song gains a mysteriousness and longing that gives Mandy Lee’s vocals a much more somber resonance.
Simply put, it’s one of the most transformative remixes I’ve heard in a long time.
“Dead” – Phoebe Ryan
Phoebe Ryan is my pick for breakout star of 2015. She’s like Ryn Weaver, except with cleaner, less cluttered production. Ryan recently released her Mine EP, and while all five tracks are quality, “Dead” is simply a cut above the rest.
Ryan is more self-aware than most fresh-on-the-scene pop singers, but there’s nothing sullen or manipulative about “Dead,” it’s an infectious firework of synth chords and guitar licks punctuated by Ryan’s gorgeous vocals.
A recent signee of Columbia Records, lookout for Ryan’s star to keep rising as the year goes on.
“Can’t Feel My Face” – The Weeknd
Over the past two-and-a-half years, The Weeknd went from the prince of dark, forward-thinking R&B to just another forgettable hip-hop tinged singer. The sound that was so novel on 2011’s House of Balloons has since become the norm, and even OVO had moved onto more boundary-pushing acts like ILoveMakonnen and PartyNextDoor.
For a while it seemed as if Abel Tesfaye’s moment as a cutting edge performer was fading, even as his lurid 50 Shades of Grey single “Earned It” infested the radio. However, he followed up a surprisingly fun collaboration with Ariana Grande with the stellar “Can’t Feel My Face.”
Always a stronger singer than many realize, Tesfaye has the chance to flex his vocals on the surprisingly uptempo track, which winds up with an infectious, Michael-Jackson-on-cocaine quality, right down to the scat adlibs in the background.
“Can’t Feel My Face” is alive in a way no Weeknd song has been since Thursday, and if this is the direction he plans on taking his career you can certainly count me in.
“New Religion” – Jazz Cartier
Jazz Cartier is a Toronto rapper, but he’s far from an OVO clone. Cartier is a pretty strong lyricist with a versatile flow that sounds at home over many different styles of instrumental, but his strongest work comes when he throws caution to the wind and swings for the fences on bangers like “New Religion.”
The song is far from your run of the mill radio rap track though. Punctuated by choir stabs and some particularly resonant ad-libs, “New Religion” portrays the grim reality of life in poverty. Sure, Cartier raps about selling drugs, but he isn’t glorifying the practice.
Marauding in Paradise, Cartier’s debut, has a few other standouts, but none that shine quite as bright as “New Religion.”
Poison Season – Destroyer
Dan Bejar is one of the best lyricists and all-around musicians out there, and he’s releasing his tenth LP at the end of August.
Bejar’s sound has been constantly evolving since he came onto the scene, and he effectively promised in a Pitchfork interview that this new record is nothing like Kaputt. That’s an interesting proposition, because while Kaputt was a terrific record it was also the most straightforward piece of music Bejar ever created.
Poison Season, just by its first single “Dream Lover,” promises to be a denser and more complex record. With its blaring wall of saxophones, “Dream Lover” has an Americana quality to it, but also bristles with a darker undertone.
Not much else is known about the album yet, but it’s sure to be one of 2015’s most captivating listens.
Dornik – Dornik
Dornik first came to our attention when “Something About You” dropped in 2013, and he has built up a strong, if sparse, discography since then.
He’ll finally drop his self-titled album later this year and it’s sure to be one of the best R&B debuts in recent memory. Dornik still has the early Prince vibes Justin and I noticed when we found him, but his sound has also taken on a more modern quality to it.
“Second Thoughts,” with its 808 hi-hats and subdued vocals is a highly contemporary cut, while “Drive,” the album’s first single, retains the vintage feel thanks to punchy electric piano chords and some classic 70s funk guitar riffs.
Dornik’s album will be a chance to showcase his tremendous versatility, and should surely vault the UK singer into the spotlight.
(Image from Consequence of Sound)
Viet Cong – Viet Cong
I could listen to the solo-ed drum track of this entire album on loop forever. The individual components are impressive enough on their own, but the crazy ways guitarists Scott Munro and Daniel Christiansen combine to create hypnotic/abrasive sounds makes this my favorite guitar based rock album since Bloc Party’s debut (2005 babyyyyyyy). Their sense of pacing, rhythm, and structure make an 11 minute epic like “Death” pay off. Between this and Ought’s album last year, Canadian rock-meisters have been consistently on point recently. I hear Echo and the Bunnymen, some Tones on Tail, and a lot of Gang of Four. They root themselves pretty firmly in a goth/post-punk lineage, but bring enough invention to the table to stand as a new addition rather than a pale imitation. And good news, their new album is completely written according to Munro. He mentioned this after Levitation Fest at Thalia Hall in an effort to get me to stop praising their performance and crying. Jokes on him, I’ll never stop crying.
“Bitches Online” – Ko
Maybe this didn’t exactly come out in 2015? I’m not actually sure, regardless I’m fudging this one – the musical backdrop is simple and effective, looping plucks and rolling beat, letting Kristin Newborn’s vocals leap all over the place. She’s got a way with melody and “Bitches Online” doesn’t sacrifice catchiness for intricacy: it’s got the best of both.
“Jasmine” (ft. Gemma Dunleavy) – Murlo
London based producer Murlo hooked up with vocalist Gemma Dunleavy for a two-track EP out on Mixpack. “Jasmine” works as a pretty sweet Dancehall-style banger, but it’s got more than enough cred as a pure pop/R&B jam thanks to the vocal performance from Dunleavy. Replayability factor HIGH. Join me in straining your voice as you mumble “only think about you” to yourself.
“Promises” (ft. Fetty Wap & Dubbel Dutch) – Bauuer
After Ed Sheeran’s total takeover of “Trap Queen,” the likes of which we haven’t seen since Johnny Cash covered “Hurt,” I hesitate to list it – instead, I’ll pick Remy Boy Fetty’s collaboration with Bauuer. This song is a fucking celebration and Bauuer’s horn-filled production is just as hype as that chorus.
“Read Her Lips” (ft. Ethereal) – Father
Somehow while sounding like he woke up five minutes ago and just learned Ableton yesterday, Awful Records’ ringleader made the most consistent and successful mixtape of the year. It’s hard to pick just one song, but the KeithCharlesSpacebar produced track is a little strung out, but mostly menacing. Ethereal’s verse absolutely steals the show.
Summer ’06 – Vince Staples
In a year with an outrageous number of incredible hip-hop release, loose Odd Future affiliate Vince Staples is about to drop another gem. Future-sampling “Senorita” set the bar high, but Staples’ pointed, sharp delivery coupled with stacked production credits (DJ Dahi) imply a low-key masterpiece.
Wildheart – Miguel
MIGUEL? MIGUEL! MIGUEL. Kaleidoscope Dream was a slow burn in much the same way as SZA and Isaiah Rashad’s 2014 albums were for me. Only in revisiting them did I truly realize how much they had stuck with me. The attention to detail on that album was deceptive and it’s sly and playful in a way that something like Channel Orange isn’t. Needless to say, Miguel’s profile is a lot bigger and he’s got some major push behind Wildheart – that three-song EP stoked the hype as did a picture of Miguel in the studio with Jai and A.K. Paul. I think he’s gonna hit us with the special sauce.
Think we missed anything? Want to tell us how bullshit this list is? Leave it in the comments!