I like that we make this list every year. No, it’s not as well read as our other posts. It doesn’t exactly fit what we do. But I like the rounded nature of this, that there’s a humor in making a jazz and non-jazz list, of the other vast majority of the market share while still including folks who are still just as independent. Many on this list are jazz musicians anyway, because we just can’t help ourselves and our tastes. Here’s our picks from that collective taste that we just can’t help.
11 tie) Son Lux – Bones
Ryan Lott, Rafiq Bhatia, and Ian Chang sound fantastic together. The trio they have become, taking Lott’s fantastic songs and passionate singing and crafting them into pieces of aurally artistic brilliance is utterly outstanding. These are your theme songs when going into battle, when emerging triumphantly from life’s foibles, and gliding through your moments of solemnity. Bones is this best of all moods.
11 tie) Ghostface Killah’s & BADBADNOTGOOD – Sour Soul
This collaboration is exactly what I wanted it to be. It intersects at cerebral with Ghostface Killah’s lyrical forays into the abstract and BADBADNOTGOOD’s restless experimentation. The two foil each other as the Canadian trio keeps the album progressing while backing up an influential MC from Staten Island that keeps the release grounded in his version of reality. Though the pairing may seem odd on paper, this album consistently produces moments that only seem possible through telepathy.
9 tie) Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
This could have, and probably should have, been a total mess. The formula was all there: artist looks to follow-up brilliant album with an even bolder, bigger, brasher sound, one that speaks both to the generation and the ages. Brian Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, Axel Rose, Nas all fell down that rabbit hole, all never to fully re-emerge; yet Kendrick somehow came back with To Pimp A Butterfly, a 76-minute epic that’s as significant a social and musical document as anyone not named Sly, Stevie or Prince has produced. None of this makes it a necessarily enjoyable record; it’s often as hard to listen to as it sounded like it was to make. But if TPAB‘s weightiness often makes you yearn for the lower-stakes fun of “Backseat Freestyle” of “Money Trees”, there’s no detracting the power of what Kendrick pulled off here. As far as Statements go, none were bigger or better in 2015.
9 tie) Kurt Vile – b’lieve I’m goin’ down
Kurt Vile’s music seems made for the road. It’s for long stretches and easy rides. His solos wander. His tricky lyrics drawl. His band, the Violators, are top notch. Vile’s music will take your time, even when you weren’t anticipating giving it so much, and never minding. These simple, hazy songs aren’t so simple and maybe this brand of the occasional six minute songs bring that much chill.
9 tie) Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment – Surf
This album received a lot of hype because Chance The Rapper is part of The Social Experiment, and I hope that hype didn’t overshadow the masterful production as well as some brilliant contributions by Noname Gypsy and KYLE. Donnie Trumpet’s production on this album is second to none, and his seamless blending of a wide variety of sounds — his own gorgeous trumpet playing, drums that seem to be straight off a Casiotone — shows his mastery of the studio as an instrument. Each song is a world of its own, though they all belong in the same universe; so, there are tracks to chill out to, tracks to contemplate, and tracks to bump.
6 tie) Grimes – Art Angels
Every song on Art Angels probably deserves a column’s worth of analysis as to why it’s such immaculately crafted pop (maybe we should get Owen Pallett on this!) I’ll just hone in on my favorite track, “Kill V. Maim”. Grimes claims the track is written from the perspective of Vito Corleone in Godfather II, only if Vito were gender switching, space travelling vampire. I don’t know exactly what that has to do with the cheerleader chant of “B-E-H-A-V-E” in the pre-chorus or the “Declare a state of WAR” shriek that kicks the track into overdrive, but it makes for one helluva thrilling ride. The best part comes around the 2:30 mark, when everything drops out to reveal an aqueous synth line churning just below the surface. It’s an ecstatic moment for me on every listen, though it’s not isolate. Art Angels is a rare record that, for all it’s big moments, still reveals incredible detail and substance under each layer. Grimes always seemed to be a big idea artist who couldn’t figure out how to translate her vision to tape. Lucky for her, and especially all of us, she figured it out this year.
6 tie) Benjamin Clementine – At Least For Now
Featuring “London”, the song that became my 2015 summer jam, At Least For Now has chewy groove after chewy groove and enchanting melody after enchanting melody. At several points throughout this album, Benjamin Clementine nimbly avoids both musical and lyrical expectations while using those same musical and lyrical lines to strike at the heart of the matter. There are no games, no subversions on this release; this is Clementine sitting at the piano and pushing his soul through his mouth and fingers and into awaiting ears.
4) Sidewalk Chalk – Shoulder Season (Ropeadope Records)
Despite knowing most of the band personally for years, Sidewalk Chalk kept surprising me this year. They did a brilliant acoustic take on Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” (from his album To Pimp a Butterfly), they went on a sprawling national tour, and of course, they released their live album Shoulder Season . Compiled from several different live shows, this release goes from mosh pit to slow dance but makes sure to stay funky throughout. Every song could be a single, and this group’s chemistry is contagious.