Run the Jewels don’t do it for me. Neither does FKA Twigs. Or War on Drugs, Sun Kil Moon, Ariel Pink, or really any of the “top musicians of 2014.” I tried to be nice in January. There were only a few records, full records, I could get behind last year: Alvvays’ and Eagulls’ self-titled debuts, Joyce Manor’s Never Hungover Again, Ought’s More Than Any Other Day, and St. Vincent’s economical collection of Martian rock. Other than that? A couple of songs here and there. A single or two. It was a rough year.
But then 2015 came early with the late December return of D’Angelo—and since then, a new classic has popped up every week or two. 2015 is only half-over, but it can already outmatch 2014 in terms of music quality. So here, in alphabetical order, are the best albums of 2015, thus far:
A$AP Rocky—At.Long.Last.A$AP: Everyone hates a bully. Mark Kozelek learned that (actually, he probably learned nothing) when Universal Themes got trashed—no one liked his treatment of The War on Drugs, and it was reflected in album reviews. A$AP Rocky suffered from the same backlash: his comments about Rita Ora on “Better Things” came off as tasteless and mean instead of, well, I’m not sure what Rocky going for by rapping, “I swear that bitch Rita Ora got a big mouth/Next time I see her might curse the bitch out/Kicked the bitch out once cause she bitched out/Spit my kids out, jizzed up all in her mouth and made the bitch bounce.” Forget that track and you still have some duds: “JD,” “Pharsyde,” and “West Side Highway” are useless. The highlights, though, and there are many of them, more than make up for the stinkers.
Favorite Tracks: “Canal St.,” “L$D,” “Fine Whine,” “Excuse Me.”
Courtney Barnett—Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit: Barnett and Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis are often hailed as the best lyricists in indie rock. I won’t argue (although I might throw Alicia Bognanno’s name into the running)—they both weave sinewy phrases that go in all sorts of directions, into just as interesting guitar sounds. I saw both of them live in the span of a month: where Dupuis was sullen, bored looking, Barnett was jubilant, excited. I didn’t catch Speedy on a bad night—I also saw them in early 2014, and they rushed through their set on both occasions, hardly pausing to chat with the audience. Their intention was clear: they wanted to get the show over with. Maybe they genuinely don’t enjoy playing live, or maybe they’re just taking the Pavement-worship too far. Either way, the two shows function as convenient metaphors for the albums: Speedy’s new record, Foil Deer, is exclusive and tough to digest—no fun at all; Sometimes I Sit… is universal in both its happy and sad moments. Favorite Tracks: “Elevator Operator,” “Depreston,” “Dead Fox.”
Bully—Feels Like: Can I coo about this album any more without coming off as weird? Feels Like is both musically and lyrically economical: bandleader Alicia Bognanno’s wails are pinpoint bursts of anxiety over tight riffs that stay with you. Bognanno may not be a traditional narrative lyricist like Barnett, but the few, specific details that she does give are enough to form a story, to know what happened. Feels Like is the musical equivalent of a great young adult novel: smart, but not too clever; usually level, but with just a little melodrama; and universal in it’s specificity. Favorite Tracks: “Trying,” “Too Tough,” “Sharktooth.”
Drake—If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late: I’ve felt the need to defend Drake since day one. “Yes, he was the wheelchair guy on Degrassi, but he can rap!” “Yes, he’s always talking about his feelings, but he can rap!” “Yes, he lint-rolled his pants at a Raptors game, but he can rap!” My friends wouldn’t listen. Critical approval, commercial success, high profile guest features, the best album of 2011—nothing would convince them. Until his latest mixtape. If You’re Reading This sees Drake at his meanest and most confident, knowing that he can take shots at any rapper without consequence, that he can surprise release 70 minutes of Drake feat. Drake (the three guest verses are minimal) and still make it one of the hottest records of the year. Favorite Tracks: “10 Bands,” “Know Yourself,” “No Tellin.’”
Joanna Gruesome—Peanut Butter: Alana McArdle leaving Joanna Gruesome is the biggest musical bummer of 2015. Peanut Butter is better than their first LP, Weird Sister, in every way: it’s faster, stranger, and more immediate. Picking a favorite track is difficult because the album flows together so well; I’ve listened to these songs sequentially, as a whole unit, more than I have individually. Favorite Tracks: “Last Year,” “Honestly Do Yr Worst.”
Sufjan Stevens—Carrie & Lowell: Nicky Smith’s review (http://splicetoday.com/music/sufjan-stevens-carries-on) covered it: this is a beautiful album about terrible things. It’s Elliott Smith without the “woe is me” undertones. Favorite Tracks: “Should Have Known Better,” “Death with Dignity,” “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross.”
Waxahatchee—Ivy Tripp: Katie Crutchfield was finishing her set at D.C.’s Black Cat, on the day Ivy Tripp was released, when some dude threw a neon beach ball into the crowd. “Nope,” Crutchfield said after a few bounces. She wagged her finger: “Bring it up here.” The crowd consented; she took the beach ball, and had one of her bandmates pop it. “This is distracting. And possibly dangerous.” Thanks, mom. The fact that that experience didn’t color my opinion of the album is a testament to its quality. Cerulean Salt, her 2013 LP, was a record that I wanted to like more than I did. Nothing stuck out to me aside from “Swan Dive” (one of the best songs of 2013). Ivy Tripp is looser and weirder—according to Crutchfield, “Cerulean Salt is a solid and Ivy Tripp is a gas.” It’s her best record yet. Favorite Tracks: “La Loose,” “Under a Rock,” “Air.”