The Best of 2015
in Music and Movies
My favorite albums of the year may not have been your personal faves, the most successful in terms of sales, or at the tops of the critics lists. However, I am making this list because I do think that this music is THAT GOOD and definitely worth talking about. As we are in the middle of the 2010’s, many of these names will be new, but it is good to look at this concept as an exciting thing as opposed to a detrimental thing. If you don’t see and album or artist you liked a lot and are wondering where I would personally rank it, you can check about my full list of over 100 albums from last year ranked here:
10.The Lone Below – Then Came the Morning
Great blast of gospel infused folk rock, that reminds one of a more upbeat Cowboy Junkies. They know when to rock out (“Cold as It Is”, “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home”, “Fake Roses”) and they known when to play for the emotional impact (“Marietta”, “Then Came the Morning”). It’s old fashioned music for sure, but it is done with great heart and consistency.
9. Julia Holter – Have You in My Wilderness
Holter’s 4th album gets even closer to approachable then her previous masterpiece, 2013’s Loud City Song. While Holter will more than likely never fall to generic pop music or become accessible to the mainstream, she succeeds in remaining a valuable singer-songwriter for our time. In a different way then her obvious contemporary, Joanna Newsom, she can portray emotions through oblique soundscapes that are out of reach for other artists of her generation. She may be more Jane Siberry than Kate Bush at this point as well, as she aims higher and reaches deeper than most people would dare too. Half of the songs on this album aren’t even anchored to a rhythmic beat at all; they just sort of drift along in the ether. If she falters on a couple of songs (“Vasquez” is maybe too aimless and “Night Song” is a little redundant), the approach still works wonders on tunes that are sublimely beautiful (“Feel You”, “Sea Calls Me Home”, “Betsy on the Roof”, “Lucette Stranded on the Island” alone ranks her among the great experimental composers of our time) and perhaps creates her catchiest tune yet with “Everytime Boots”.
8. The Tallest Man on Earth – Dark Bird is Home
Tallest Man just keeps getting better, it is kind of amazing. Another fascinating thing about this record is it gets better as it goes, the second half is nearly perfect: “Sagres” is a soaring beauty that may be his best tune yet; “Timothy” recalls Dylan’s Desire era with a Scottish tinge; “Beginners” and “Seventeen” are the kind of epic ballads he has always excelled at; “Dark Bird is Home” is maybe his most complex song to date, lyrically and musically. While there are slight mis-steps in “Singers” and “Little Nowhere Towns” approaching bad Billy Joel territory, TM’s folk has never veered so close to actually rocking before but it totally succeeds here with some of his best melodies.
7.Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
Barnett filled a void that is always much needed in any year: a solid, hard rock album. There are also echoes of power pop (“Elevator Operator”, “Aqua Profunda!”, “Debbie Downer”) and plenty of darker, more complex diversions (“Small Poppies”, “Kim’s Caravan”) that make the album more than just another traditional release. It has the potential to be the next Nirvana’s Nevermind with a lead single that can appeal to everyone in “Pedestrian at Best”, and she whips up a classic alternative rock sound that channels 1990’s acts such as Pavement, Liz Phair, and Madder Rose. In a lot of ways, the album feels planned out to show all facets of Barnett’s personality almost to the point of mathematical precision. But an album that his all the right notes and proves that she can master any rock music style is rare in any year, so it is a very welcome presence in rock music.
6.Thee oh Sees – Mutilator Defeated At Last
While there is something to be said for a band that makes the same kind of songs/music over and over again, in the case of Thee Oh Sees it is a good thing. The degrees to which they are able to find new uses for the same couple of chords, song titles, and old Pink Floydian riffs is borderline insane. Nevertheless, “Poor Queen” and “Rogue Planet” are as relentless as their rockers have ever been; “Sticky Hulks” and “Lupine Ossuary” point in new directions for slow, menacing psych rock; “Web and “Palace Doctor” would not be out of place on any other of John Dweyer’s records. What the band does right on Mutilator is the secret to all great albums: keep it concise, consistent, and keep changing it up ever so slightly.
5.Floating Points – Elaenia
Influenced by some of the better post-rock artists around, Sam Shepherd’s Floating Points project subtly knocks out any competition in terms of electronic album of the year. The jazz influence of opener “Nespole” recall’s Tortoise’s TNT meets the cosmic synth waves of Klaus Schulze. The multitrack “Silhouettes I,II,III” moves from nervous energy to mind-bellowing calm with ease, all over the course of eleven minutes, sort of like if Flying Lotus was able to condense all of his good ideas into a cohesive whole instead of multi-fragments. “Argente” and “Thin Air” are basically the same track – one played normal and one dissected and played at random, not simply backwards like most would do. Only the title song “Elaenia” fails to satisfy, coming off as rather slow and not as well thought out as the other tracks. Saving the best for last, “For Marmish” perfects the pseudo-jazz of the opening track to open new doorways for the future in progressive rock and closer “Peroration Six” used diminished chords to their full unnerving effect, ending in one of the most abrupt yet satisfying ways I have ever heard. In a word – Astonishing.
4.Lupe Fiasco – Tetsou and Youth
Epic hip hop, and Lupe’ s best album. The length of some of the tracks (“Chopper”, “Prisoners”, “Mural”, each approaching nine minutes) is very impressive because they earn their length and tell engaging stories. Ditto for the shorter tunes (“Deliver”, “Blur My Hands”, “Little Death”) as this is some of the best tunes of the year that have the power to elevate hip hop to a healthier extreme than the mainstream music of today. It is so refreshing to hear a record that accurately tackles topics as diverse as Obamacare on “Chopper”, single mothers on “Madonna”, youth obsessed with comic books and videogames on “Mural”, pizza delivery on “Deliver”, and trying to maintain relationships in the real world of prison on “Prisoners 1&2”. Guest vocalists are used subtly throughout the massive album and it never loses track of Lupe’s main objective, especially the break-out performer Nikki Jean. Less vulgarity and more articulate than most modern rap, this sets a high standard; if you need proof just listen to the insane flow of “Adoration of the Magi”. The best Hip Hop album of the year.
3.The Go! Team – The Scene Between
Before crafting the best melodic pop album of the last couple of years, The Go! Team were kind of forgotten and destined to be a footnote in rock music history with their debut album Thunder, Lightning, Strike back in 2004. But the stylistic remake on The Scene Between releases a whole new avenue of possibilities, with new classics including “The Art of Getting By” “Catch Me on the Rebound”, and “What D’you Say”. It sounds retro and futuristic at the same time, recalling past greats such as Stereolab, My Bloody Valentine, Blonde Redhead and even The Surpremes all together in a whirlwind of pop music glamour and a menagerie of illuminated melodies.
2.US Girls – Half Free
Meg Remy completely re-does her sound and style with a commentary on women’s place in modern society and it is a wonder to behold. Whether talking about self-esteem, military wives, or mental stability, the subject matter is always gripping and quite often gloomy. Songs such as “Navy and Cream”, “Damn That Valley”, and “New Age Thriller” survive more on atmosphere and special effects than music, making the album quite the cinematic experience. Her skill, much like similar more famous acts like Lady Gaga, St. Vincent or Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, is in the way she makes each track its own sort of saga and can come up with great rock songs in the process. This is not Remy’s debut album, but it is a rebirth of her creative soul.
1.Algiers – self titled
A furious and original band worth hearing in 2015, Atlanta’s Algiers have unequivocally made the greatest debut album of the 2015. Mixing the fury of a hundred post-punk bands of the 1980’s with the holy gospel of the south, a new sound is born that goes beyond mere soul music imitations. Algiers are political in scope for sure, chanting about horror’s of the past (“Blood”, “Black Eunuch”) and present (“Old’ Girl”, “In Parallax). An old fashioned, soul-fused approach singer in Franklin J. Fisher makes a huge difference, especially in the gut-wrenching “Claudette” where he sings about a lost love or in “Games”, where an otherwise traditional spiritual is turned into an impassioned soliloquy. When talking post-punk styles, noise rock always comes up and it is prominent in the beginning of the albums greatest tune “But She Was Not Flying”, a tune soaked in the buzz of guitar feedback where the background vocals that seem to come out of machines are as important as the front man (who wisely refuses to hog the spotlight and shares it with scary ambience). “Old Girl” is also a song about the dangers of modern society sung in the style of Public Enemy’s “She Watch Channel Zero”.
Best Single Songs of the Year:
1.The Lone Below – “Fake Roses”
2.Lupe Fiasco – “Mural”
3.Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian at Best”
4.Algiers – “But She Was Not Flying”
5.The Tallest Man on Earth – “Sagres”
6.Calexico – “Bullets and Rocks”
7.Vince Staples – “3230”
8.The Go! Team – “The Art of Getting By”
9.James McMurty – “You Got To Me”
10.My Morning Jacket – “Tropics”
11.The Mountain Goats – “Foreign Object”
12.U.S. Girls – “Navy and Cream”
13.Floating Points – “For Marnish”
14.Grimes – “Kill V. Maim”
15.Dwight Yoakum – “She”
16.Julia Holter – “Everytime Boots”
17.Algiers – “Old Girl”
18.Metz – “Wait In Line”
19.Pusha T – “Sunshine”
20.Built to Spill – “When I’m Blind”
21.Blank Realm – “Gold”
22.Clarence Clarity – “Those Who Can’t Cheat”
23.Mbongwana Star – “Masobele”
24.Faith No More – “Separation Anxiety”
25.The Lowest Pair – “Minnesota Mend Me”
26.Tape Impala – “Reality In Motion”
27.The Sonics – “Livin In Chaos”
28.Lupe Fiasco – “Chopper”
29.Coastal – “Winter”
30.Sufjan Stevens – “The Only Thing”
Honorable Mention: Run the Jewels – “Rubble Kings Theme”
The Best MOVIES of 2015
- 99 Homes – Bahrani’s take on the housing crisis of the late 00’s plays along with The Big Short as a wakeup call for America. Michael Shannon’s brilliant performance as a manipulator of people and their misfortunes definitely dominates the movie but the ensemble cast does a great job overall of portraying the American middle class in a hopeless situation of endless debt and loss. There is not a lot of hope, just brutal honesty.
- Victoria – Holding the current record for longest single scene shot in movie history at over two and a half hours, the whole movie is one giant take and one unstoppable thrill ride. With a running time that honestly zips by, Victoria demonstrates the vitality of modern movies like nothing else around. It’s exclusion from the Best Foreign Film category on this year’s Oscars for containing “too much English” is ridiculous.
- Joy – One of the most original movies of the year, part harsh reality and part vivid daydream. It is hard to balance these worlds and David O’Russell does it effortlessly. Jennifer Lawrence proves her lead acting chops like never before, and the surrounding background cast (Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, etc) bring the great screenplay to life.
- The Avengers: Age of Ultron – Not as accessible as the first Avengers but definitely any comic lovers ultimate cinematic fantasy. It’s also one of the cleverest movies of the year, blending action scenes and superhero melodrama with genius dialogue. Ultron becomes a very relatable villain for a robot with emotions, updated for the 21st century though he had obviously influenced every other robotic villain since his appearance in the 1960’s.
- Ex Machina – A haunting look at the not so distant future and the fear of creating artificial life, the small-scale beauty of this film outshines many more of its action movie blockbuster cousins by being true to humanity’s flaws and curiosities. We are truly doomed if artificial intelligence is not controlled properly.
- Room – Another very original movie with a familiar story plot, but concentrates more on the effects of the trauma on the human psyche then any kind of clichéd melodrama. Most movies wouldn’t dare to delve as deep as Room does into the effect that a horrifying event can have on a family and the tough choices that people must make which aren’t choices at all, but the brutality of life. These two main characters, played brilliantly and unglamorously by Brie Larson and Jacob Trembley, never had a chance at a normal life.
- The Hateful Eight – Tarantino’s best movie behind Pulp Fiction returns to his strengths in many ways. Non-linear storytelling and 19th century dialogue and scenery meets a mystery element reminiscent of Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock, but with a perverse sense of humor that may turn some people off (oh well!). Never pretending to be somebody he is not, Tarantino moves forward his original voice and crafts everything perfectly this time around and the movie is exactly what you would expect it to be…. and more.
- The Gift – The biggest surprise of the year to me, a simple yet effective movie written by and co-starring Joel Edgerton. He may end up being the thinking man’s Tom Hardy, showing the world a side of movies often left of the screen; a story that is so creepy and perverse it will leave you squeamish for days after viewing. Jason Bateman deserved an Oscar nomination at least for what is perhaps the most surprising actor performance of the year.
- Sicario – No director around makes movies as good as Dennis Villeneuve, perhaps the most hopeful voice of major cinema around. This is his 4th major movie and one of this best, combining the harsh reality of 2013’s Prisoners with an even more devastating world of Juarez, Mexico. The drug war that rages on in that city alone is never ending, and any attempts to stop it or contain it may prove futile. That doesn’t keep the US government from trying in this not-so-fictional tale of the sacrifices people make in the name of keeping the peace. There is brilliant scene after brilliant scene combined with a screenplay that makes you care about even the smallest characters (in some ways making the small characters the most tragic of all). The cinematography of Roger Deakins is just the icing on the cake, literally showing off a melting pot of USA/Mexico borders and terrain.
1.The Big Short – As brilliant as Sicario is and holding my #1 spot for most of the year, The Big Short is better and one of the great farces of all time. A dream cast at the helm that balances four groups of people effortlessly struggling to not let the USA housing market disaster of the late 00’s destroys their lives and the economy, there is little they can do to stop the coming onslaught of stock market crashes and loan underpayments. The brilliance of the move lies in its approach, which balances comedy with a documentary style seriousness and visionary cut-n-paste editing.
By doing these things in a way that even everyone can understand, director Adam McKaye reinvents the landscape of how movies are made. What The Big Short does best is show off a style of invention that combines many old troupes to make something completely new, making it a milestone in movie history akin to Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Godfather, etc. The movie could have been about anything, the reason it succeeds is because every single aspect of it is top notch – acting, screenplay, cinematography, accessibility. It is simply the most profound movie of the year in story and execution and I doubt we will get something else like it for a very long time.
Honorable Mentions: Inside Out, Spectre, Love & Mercy, Mississippi Grind, Truth, White Dog