Way back when, in a land called February, I took a trip down to Mexico. I’m a mixed bag when I get on a plane – I might be productive, I might be sleepy, I might have crippling anxiety that my end is near, or I might just have a couple paid beverages. Surprisingly, this flight was the first of all those options, and I took the time to write hundreds and hundreds of words about the music I loved most in 2015. And then I never saw those words again…until today! Welcome to the insanely overdue and barely edited 2015 MAMAMY (Mostly America’s Most Awesome Music of the Year) Awards!
Album/Artist of the Year
Think this category’s pretty self-explanatory. Who came out with the best album last year?
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
During the few years of high school and college where I wasn’t fully aware that good music was still being made, I blamed it on drugs. Rather, a lack of drugs. I thought musicians were cleaning up their acts, seeing half their idols pass before they even hit 30. I was wrong, of course; I was just listening to the wrong stuff, but the point is, music needs drugs. Just as half of America needs legal drugs to stay focused or calm down or whatever else we can do to mask reality and stifle creativity, a guy like Josh Tillman, uses slightly less legal drugs to open up the possibilities of his work. Or maybe he’s never done a drug in his life, I don’t know the guy, but his music sure implies he does some pretty wild stuff.
With his second solo effort, the man who goes by “Father John Misty” made, what I consider, the album of the year for 2015. The songs are well crafted, his voice is outstanding, and the messages and stories are fantastical, real and condescending all at once. It’s the type of music and writing I hope I’d aspire to make were I to dedicate my life to music. There are maybe two songs on this whole album I wouldn’t want to listen to on repeat, and it’ stands down the most complete and consistent work I listened to in 2015. While you’d expect most of his stories to be drugs and orgies (especially a dude with his level of fame and sarcasm and man-bun), the most gripping is a serene track that closes the album, where he shares the story of meeting his wife.
Jamie xx – Loud Places
Back in 2011, Jamie xx released an EP with a song called “Far Nearer.” Now, at the time I didn’t know who Jamie xx was, but I talked to some people who know some stuff about music and found out, duh, he’s from The xx. Anyone who’s ever listened to indie music knows The xx. Well, this is the dude. Jamie. Jamie xx. And if I had to right now list my top 10 songs of the past five years, “Far Nearer” would undoubtedly be on it. So, needless to say, I was all kinds of pumped to see him release a new album in 2015, and he did not disappoint.
It’s kind of a strange album. I mean, it’s obviously not for everyone, for starters, but it started out as something I could just have on in the background kinda and occasionally pay attention to and start grooving. Then when I sat down and gave it a good listen the whole way through, I could see what he was doing, which was making a dance club album with so many sounds and layers that you can move to it, be surprised by it, and keep listening over and over and find new things to love. It’s a jam fest, through and through, and one where it’s tough to pick out a single highlight. While I featured “Loud Places” on my Top Songs of 2015 list, it’s tough to say there was an opening track that got me more excited for an album last year than “Gosh.” It may take a few listens to get into, but – newsflash – typically, that’s how great music works.
Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
Not many bands explode quite like the Shakes have. They released their first full-length album in 2011 and got enough buzz to skip right up to the second class of concert venues for their nationwide tour there (in Boston, that means House of Blues, the Orpheum, Agganis Arena, whatever we’re calling Harborlights these days…first class is the Garden and Great Woods…and then there’s “I can’t believe this many people like country music, but I guess that makes sense because generally people like terrible things, I mean, there are like 12 different CSI shows” class, which is Gillette Stadium). Anyway, if you made it through that parenthetical, the Shakes burst (assuming this can function as the past tense of “burst”) onto the scene with a reputation for a fantastic live show and a sound that transcends generations, and this was with an album that I really don’t think is that great – a few fantastic songs, but as a whole, not incredible by any stretch of the imagination for me.
Then here they come in 2015 with “Sound & Color,” and it’s almost like it’s the first album they should have come out with. It sounds so raw at times, like they were just fooling around in a garage for a few hours and someone said, “hey, record this one,” and that’s how the album came out. When they released “Don’t Wanna Fight,” I didn’t think there was a chance I’d hear a better song this year, but it turns out most of the album is on that level. If they come out with another album of this caliber, I’m not sure I could argue with anyone calling them the best rock and roll band of this generation. Listen to this and tell me that’s wrong.
Best New Artist
Artists who released their first full-length albums or EPs this year, unless I somehow messed this up.
Okay, so this is going to sound a little weird, but BOOTS didn’t create my favorite album by a new artist in 2015. In fact, it might not even be in my top 3 new artists’ albums. But, as I think I’ve referenced a few times already, it’s because an album to me is a complete work – every track needs to be given a similar weight and value (which is why albums with too many tracks are typically a train wreck, FETTY), and there are just a couple times this album loses me. But…ignore that for the time being. Classic me, starting with the negative. Let’s try this again.
No artist – new or otherwise – broke down the barriers of sounds like BOOTS did in 2015. The combination of beats and what sometimes sounds like he’s literally (literally literally, not ironic literally) shredding his guitar is something I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve heard before. That’s why “I Run Roulette” was my #1 song this year – not necessarily because I think it’ll be my favorite song from 2015 a few years from now, but because of what it does and what it represents as a path for music going forward. It’s the type of music that’s so aggressive it makes you want to run through a wall, and then when you sit down and have an isolated experience with the songs, you can’t do anything but appreciate the artistry and craft that was put behind it. It’s just like…nobody. I can’t come up with a comparison. But I hope a few years from now I can look at new material that comes out from other artists and say it stemmed from BOOTS. It’s a challenge at times, but it’s so, so worth it.
I’ve been pushing Baio hard on people lately (no, not Scott this time…and you’re the 98th person to make that joke to me, so good job there). He’s the bass player for Vampire Weekend, so it’s one of the easier musicians to tell people about and convince them they should listen because everyone loves Vampire Weekend or has some fond memory tied to a Vampire Weekend song (they’re like, the anti-Southern Comfort).
I’ll be honest, I didn’t originally spend a ton of time with this album. I thought it was catchy and there were some interesting sounds on it, but I didn’t think it was anything earth-shattering. I still kind of agree with that, but I’d raise it up a bit higher than that now. It’s super catchy. There’s a ton of re-listen value on The Names, and a lot of that has to do with some pretty exciting and enticing sounds going on, whether it’s in the foreground or the background. I picked “Brainwash yyrr Face” as one of my top songs of the year almost entirely because of this piece of the chorus that basically just sounds like a robot woman crying out for help and trying to explain something to you. That’s the kind of stuff that grabs my attention and gets me excited. It’s the best element of any song I listened to in 2015. But since I already featured that one, let’s try something that’s probably a little more accessible.
Last year I made a commitment to myself to stop being a weenie and go see artists I like when they come to town, whether or not I have to do that alone. So, one night, I trekked out to Brighton to see Algiers play, knowing their sound made promise for an interesting live show. They didn’t disappoint in the least. And despite the venue having probably less than 100 people inside, they poured everything out on stage…especially the bass player, who was at times genuinely frightening (but also jumped off the stage and thanked everyone individually for coming to the show, which was a pretty awesome gesture and made me significantly less afraid of him).
Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. They were great live, but more importantly, they’re just great, and they have a sound and combination that’s really unique when a lot of music today seems to blend together. To me, Algiers is basically the manifestation of one of my favorite songs of all time, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Wait, hear me out, this is a serious comparison (that I really hope doesn’t offend the band if they ever read this). They’re not, like fiddlers or anything, so this comparison already doesn’t make sense, but here goes. In that song, Johnny faces off with the devil in a song-for-song battle for his soul (which, by the way, the devil wins HANDS DOWN, but the song’s story fails to reflect that). I don’t know how Johnny ended up in a battle with the devil, but whatever dark and torturous experience led him to Hell and whatever dark and torturous experience Hell itself was, there’s no way Johnny came back and led a normal life after that. Algiers is what coming back from Hell armed with music sounds like. And it’s beautiful and terrifying all the same.
An artist that has previously released work and showed tremendous strides or growth in their 2015 work.
A couple years ago, Night Beds (which I’m still still not sure if it’s more than one dude or not) released an album called Country Sleep, which was a soft, pleasant listen that you could listen to on repeat and not offend anyone. I expected more of the same in his/their 2015 release, where I would be perfectly content just having another song half as good as “Even If We Try.” Instead, we got an experiment of sorts – we got a portal into an artist trying to figure out who he is, what he wants to sound like and what his limits are. As a complete work, Ivywild isn’t something you’re going to listen to the whole way through more than once or twice. As an exploration of what challenging, beautiful music can be, it’s, for lack of a stronger word, a treat. I already featured “I Give It” on my Top 100 Songs of 2015 list, so here’s the opening track, which may be the most rewarding song to listen to on repeat and let grow on you.
As far as critical acclaim goes, I’m not sure anyone had a bigger breakout year than Kamasi. And with good reason…Kamasi’s nearly 3-hour album The Epic, as I’m sure thousands of clever music writers have said, absolutely lives up to the name. In a time when it’s assumed humans have no attention spans, here comes an album longer than most feature-length films, with its “quickest” song lasting 6:32. It’s a phenomenal piece of work, and one I’m not sure can be replicated. The only beef I have with The Epic is the same as I’d have with any “epic” film, in that I don’t think I can do the whole thing again. But, whatever, that doesn’t really matter. I have playlists, I have YouTube, I don’t need to listen to an entire album every time I hear one song. Which is great news because the horns, the flow, the complexity – even in just one song, it’s enough to stay with you for a long time.
As with any rap, hip hop or otherwise cool artist, I first came across The Weeknd through my friend Shaun (back in 2011). I thought his first release was a bit hit or miss, but the hits were huge hits to me, particularly “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls.” I liked what I heard, but I wasn’t exactly prospecting at the time, so I didn’t give much thought to what his career trajectory would be. But even if I had, I don’t think I could have seen this type of explosion coming. In 2015, The Weeknd maybe had the biggest commercial breakout of any musician, and though it took a little change in style to get there it was well worth the change. He’s a pop star now, and though I hate losing that dark edge he had back on Trilogy, he’s creating some incredibly catchy music at a global scale and is probably making a poo-load of money compared to his income 5 years ago. He’s about two more hit songs away from being a household name, and I can’t wait to see where he goes next, which seems to be straight after that MJ crown from stuff like this (you already know this song, probably).
You Do You
Artists who didn’t really improve or even performed at a slightly lower level than their previous efforts, but just thanks for not falling off a cliff or anything.
At the time of writing this, I have no idea what Kendrick may or may not have actually won at the Grammys. To Pimp a Butterfly is a solid effort, and typically these awards shows are about rewarding your past because they’re always late to the party for GOD KNOWS WHAT REASON. It doesn’t reach the same level as good kid, m.A.A.d city for me, but it maintains the level Kendrick hit with that album. And you very well may be in the camp that Butterfly is the best he’s ever done and nothing can top “King Kunta” or “Hood Politics,” and that’s totally fine – you do you. For me, I thought it was a sonically inferior effort, and it just didn’t tie together like Butterfly does. From that opening segment in “Sherane,” the mood is set for good kid, and you’re pulled into Kendrick’s world. That’s not easy to replicate, and it wasn’t replicated here, but Kendrick still put out a very strong album with a slew of good tracks on it. Here’s hoping he rebounds with his next album…which it looks like he just put out? What? Great, well, ignore everything here till I listen to that.
Sneaky, Calexico. You’re sneaky good. And you sneakily made one of my favorite albums of 2015. Calexico is just a consistent, reliably enjoyable band, straddling some line between Americana and Mexican sounds (just Googled them to see what their description was, and it says “American, Tex-Mex, indie” – pretty solid descriptive work by me there, thanks for nothing, Googs). They’re basically the entire reason I created this category. I knew they weren’t in my top-top albums, and I knew they didn’t do enough to call this a breakout, but man, is Edge of the Sun a heck of a collection of tunes. Besides Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear, this album has the most re-listen value for me of the 2015 collection. It’s too pleasant to grow tired of (yeah, I know I’m not supposed to end a sentence with of, get off my case).
I don’t think it does them justice to pick out just one song – it’d be like picking out an episode of Breaking Bad and saying “here’s what this show is.” There are some very subtle differences from song to song, but as some parts dive further into the Americana side and others sound like a more talented and complex mariachi band, you can’t just take one song and say “this is Calexico.” But I am gonna take one song and say “this is how good this Calexico album is,” and then if you want to see what’s on the other side of the coin, you can always swing back to the overly-referenced Top Songs list I published for the end of 2015.
If I was scripting a movie (probably an indie movie about a teenage boy coming to terms with his place in the world and the damning predestination that comes with growing up in the American education system…just speculating though, who knows?), I have a big list of artists I know I’d reach out to for my soundtrack. Obviously Andrew Bird would write the score, but I’d want some original songs in there, too, and that, my sad friends who have read this far, is where Patrick Watson comes in. I have yet to fall in love with a Patrick Watson album in its entirety, but I’ll tell you what this guy does. Every couple years he busts out two or three of the most beautiful and emotional songs of the year, and he did it again in 2015. He could put out an album that’s just a man scratching his beard and smacking his lips for the other nine songs, and I wouldn’t care. As long as he puts in the effort to make those other tracks as enchanting and as special as this song I’m about to share, I’d be foolish not to listen.