On Monday, I discussed some of the TV show music cues I liked from this year. Today I’m providing a list of my favorite albums. I’m not really one for hierarchies. There is a top three (kinda), but after that it’s unranked because what does it mean to be the seventh-best record of the year really? That said, it’s no accident that many of these entries interrogate citizenship in a year profoundly defined by malevolent structures and forces that unequally restrict and allocate who gets to be a citizen and under what conditions. It’s also quite deliberate that many of these albums were self-produced by women resisting the pressure to justify themselves. It’s not a comprehensive list, as undoubtedly soon I’ll unearth a treasure or someone will recommend something. Year-end lists are comforting narratives we craft about our own tastes to cope with the passage of time and I always like returning to the past and finding things I missed in order to challenge canon-making’s ossification. Your music may be part of that unceasing process of discovery, and I look forward to hearing it later.
Erykah Badu – But You Caint Use My Phone (Motown/Control Freaq)
Last month Badu released this mixtape, which she co-produced with Zach Witness. End of the year, and just in time. Badu always sounds warm even when what she’s saying is cold, and peerlessly scribbles in the margins of song form. That’s how she’s able to turn Drake’s “Hotline Bling” into a revision of her 1997 hit “Tyrone” and a character study of the woman on the other end of that booty call. But what resonates most is Caint’s aching heart. Badu pursues a thematic interest in mobile technology through the lens of nostalgia, as though she wants to return to a time when we didn’t constantly use our phones to broadcast out and look in. Smartphones give us the ability to connect, whether we’re touching base with old friends or documenting instances of social injustice that have always been there but social media can differently illuminate. But you can’t unsee Eric Garner getting the life wrung out of him. However, you can channel the anger that comes with that realization into art and community and try to keep who you have and grow with them. That’s probably why she’s a doula. And it may be why so many of her albums’ final songs—“Green Eyes,” “Out My Mind (Just in Time)”—are about Andre or him in relation to other partnerships that fell apart or shifted. And that’s also why their reworking of the Isley Brothers’ “Hello It’s Me,” which concludes Caint, is lovely and bittersweet like divorced parents sharing a slow dance at their kid’s wedding reception. This year Badu came on silly like a LOL cat meme, flirty like a dirty joke told in emojis, weary like a 2 a.m. Facebook lurk, and contrarian like a flip phone or documenting a hate crime in vertical mode. Says the artist in another song that’s hot and cold: “that’s so me.”
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love (Sub Pop)
Rock has a lot of folk heroes. Often successful execution determines heroism, whether it’s getting strangers to chant a chorus with total sincerity or smashing a guitar with balletic force for a photographer. Heroes don’t miss, because men get to be heroes and we often make excuses when they do. We also make exceptions of women when they try, which is why Broad City’s Ilana Glazer offered a great corrective to the “all-girl band” questions that haunt this band by asking them in a recent interview “does rocking hard mean gender equality to you?” But in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein celebrates the virtue of near-misses, which goes hand in glove with the memoir’s other major contribution: fandom’s equalizing potential to the creative process (or: why so many of Sleater-Kinney’s songs are about making music).
Earlier this year, I saw Sleater-Kinney perform at Riverside Theatre. My adolescence did not make room for Sleater-Kinney because I couldn’t hear the electric guitar’s feminist potential or entertain sexist assumptions from boys at shows about my fandom. Our paths finally crossed with No Cities to Love, an “electric” record in every sense, but particularly in how Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss wield their instruments, voices, and words to convey the spark and heat of idealism sharpening into wisdom. One of riot grrrl’s biggest contributions to contemporary feminism was how it prioritized young women’s equal participation in music’s production and reception. “Girls to the front” wasn’t a slogan. Stopping a set to teach fans how to play your song wasn’t a gimmick. It rearranged space to put young women in the middle. Even though I had a birds-eye view of the set, they sounded so close that it felt like I was on stage with them. But the girls in the front—campers from Milwaukee’s chapter of Girls Rock Camp—could make out their chord and drum patterns, sweat, and discarded pics, and take notes. That’s heroism.
Lizzo – Big GRRRL, Small World (Totally Gross National Product)
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
At a recent speaking engagement, a UW-Madison student asked Ta-Nehesi Coates what he thought about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, prefacing his question with the explanation that it was one of the first hip-hop albums to deal with race. Coates countered this statement by name-checking Public Enemy before admitting that he hadn’t listened to Lamar’s record, which came out a few weeks before the event. In the back of the hall, this question seemed like a missed opportunity on three fronts. First, shoulda asked Coates about comic books dude. Second, why assume that one of race relations’ most vital critical thinkers has listened to your new favorite hip-hop record? Third, check the footnotes. Butterfly’s sound and collaborators situate Lamar’s flow within G-Funk’s grammar, one of his hometown’s major innovations and a sub-genre heavily indebted to 70s funk’s radical streak as a way to turn living in a police state into art. How do you process Rodney King? Your auntie’s record collection may have answers.
But young people often turn to their immediate context to figure out how to become adults. A necessary part of that process is realizing that some people get to go to college while others end up in prison or profiled or killed, confront the profound injustice at the root of this realization, and do something transformative with that knowledge. And it’s also why listening to records isn’t in itself a political act, but can be a resource for social change. Two records offered that kind of equipment for living this year. In April, Lamar released his third album. Eight months later, Minneapolis-based rapper Lizzo reached the same milestone at the tail end of the year after many year-end lists were drafted. Both are kaleidoscopic, ambitious efforts that impressively demonstrate the range and personality of the talent at their center. Both quote liberally from hip-hop’s past, as well as nod to its proximity to other genres (Lamar has jazz, Lizzo has dance). One rapper productively tests the commercial recording industry’s artistic limits, while the other demonstrates her entrepreneurial acumen by shirking interest from the majors to run her own label. Lamar struggles with hip-hop’s entrenched misogyny, while Lizzo applies an intersectional feminist critical lens to the genre and in doing so opens it up as a productive space for commentary and women’s artistic collaboration. Oh, and they’re both fun, immersive listening experiences. Lamar’s music evokes night-driving as a way to clear an unquiet mind and defy racial profiling. Lizzo’s music sees beyond #SquadGoals to observe how the giddy female energy of slumber parties and their rituals—dance routines, beauty and masturbation life hacks, gossip that chips at hegemony—resemble consciousness-raising sessions. Blast these albums in the dorms, kids. And learn their lessons. You are the future, and there’s work to do.
Empress Of – Me (XL Recordings)
Lorely Rodriguez makes music that sounds like a woman throwing a jewelry box against the wall, or my kind of pop. Me is Rodriguez’s follow-up to 2013’s Systems and her proper full-length debut. Its title may double as a form of clarification. Rodriguez produced this album and released it in a year when Jessica Hopper’s interview with Björk (a kindred spirit, if not a direct influence) spawned a Tumblr archive of images of female musicians, producers, and engineers to demonstrate that, indeed, women make music and authorship cannot be dead until it is equally applied to them. What follows is one of the most exquisitely textured and assured debut efforts of the year, propelled by Rodriguez’s clear, insistent voice. “What do you see in the mirror when you’re feeling restless? Do you see a man who isn’t there?” she asks on the breathtaking “Standard,” negotiating a distorted 4/4 beat pattern before catapulting over it. “Living for the sake of living, I can promise you no one cares,” she concludes on the other side of the chorus. That may be true, and pictures of women working behind mixing desks cannot change that for some people. But I care, and this music sounds like the future.
Grimes – Art Angels (4AD)
Oscar Isaac said in a recent Details profile that “[i]n order to be a leading actor everyone has to be an action star, to a certain extent.” Female pop stars have known this for generations (see also: LaBelle’s intergalactic girl gang drag, Kate Bush in the “Army Dreamers” video, Madonna’s biceps, Beyoncé standing fifty feet tall like Gene Simmons in front of the word “FEMINIST” at the VMAs). To follow up her 2012 breakthrough Visions, Claire Boucher emerged from playing video games in her basement and found the end of world. More accurately, she scrapped an album’s worth of songs that didn’t interest her and commandeered Pro Tools like Imperator Furiosa steering the War Rig and circled back to find that Art Angels’ apocalyptic Jock Jams sound was always there. Extending the Fury Road comparison to geopolitics, I haven’t settled my opinion on Boucher’s cultural omnivorousness. But the decision to work with Janelle Monáe and Aristophanes suggests coalition-building over colonization. And I would’ve left “REALiTi” alone, but sometimes we must destroy what’s beautiful to taste Valhalla all shiny and chrome.
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop)
Here’s something Courtney Barnett revealed about herself in a recent conversation with Kim Deal: Sometimes shy people have so much to say and they don’t talk often because they’re forever turning over phrases in their heads and searching for the right words so they say them all at once. And sometimes they just sit. Barnett shreds too. If these masterfully written songs sound pear-shaped, you may need to lay down because she’s approaching them sideways.
Joanna Newsom – Divers (Drag City)
“Sons of Bob Dylan” appears in the middle of novelty folk singer Wally Pleasant’s 1994 album, Houses of the Holy Moly. Its argument is simple: every singer-songwriter (Lou, Bruce, Neil, etc.) is derivative of Bob Dylan, who was himself billed as the next Woody Guthrie, and the recording industry is always willing to commodify their constructed authenticity. That they’re all dudes is no accident. Toward the end of The Punk Singer, Kathleen Hanna muses “I just think there’s this certain assumption that when a man tells the truth it’s the truth and when, as a woman, I go to tell the truth, I feel like I have to negotiate the way I’ll be perceived.” As someone who is often written off as twee because of her harp, brittle voice, and decorously feminine self-presentation, Joanna Newsom must feel this sentiment in her bones. That’s why it was so punk when she listed her wardrobe’s textures and fabrics to conclude her last album as a nod to the empty closet her lover would get back after their break-up. On this album, she ponders what it’s like to love someone so deeply that you’re willing to watch them die after a long life together through a collection of intricate, masterfully arranged compositions. There’s nothing less twee than spanning time and death do us part. Joanna Newsom is not the next Bob Dylan, or Joni Mitchell, or Karen Dalton, or Kate Bush. She’s growing into something else: herself.
Shamir – Ratchet (XL)
Mickey Mouse croons to a lover he wants or doesn’t, reads yuh’ to filth, then sashays away. Most parties aren’t as fun as this record, including the records about parties, thanks to Shamir’s magnetic self-possession and Nick Sylvester’s buoyant production. In an alternate reality, Shamir rescues Alessia Cara from the party she’s withstanding in “Here” (an excellent rejoinder to Can’t Feel My Face-core, by the way) and they fire up the smoke machine at his house.
Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, girl (Sacred Bones)
Album title of the year, no question. And Hval’s ear for composition implies a steady diet of late 90s R&B—particularly the airy presence of Aaliyah’s dexterous soprano—and liturgical music. Its sense of the divine corresponds with its theoretical ambitions, a pursuit that Stuart Hall memorably compared to “wrestling with the angels.” Crafting a concept album about how ambivalence organizes feminists’ daily lives offers listeners few immediate rewards. Feminism is often co-opted to tell comforting narratives about progress and autonomy that privilege the concerns of middle-class white women; essentialize and condescend to women committed to leveling gender inequality without exploiting imperialism; and comply with capitalism’s unequal distribution of resources at work, home, and in public. In the West, its historical narrative is often organized in metaphorical waves, which justifies generational factions, misapprehends political gains’ uniform distribution, and ignores undertow. Finally feminism can bend toward dogma and splinter into contradiction, which often means to apply it is to misapply it. This might be why so many of these songs—“Why This?” the end of “That Battle Is Over”—sound like they are resisting their own disintegration. But this album is so alive with words and ideas—including the radical potential of “soft dick rock” and self-care—that it’s a pleasure to wrestle with it again and again.
fka twigs – M3LL155X EP (Young Turks)
Earlier this year I scrapped a comparative analysis of Under the Skin and Ex Machina, which put Mica Levi’s eerie score from the former in conversation with the pulsing sounds Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow produced for the latter. It never materialized, as the comparison praised Jonathan Glazer’s film to hang Alex Garland’s three-hander and that’s lazy criticism. Also, such comparisons reduce the individual merits of Scarlett Johansson’s and Alicia Vikander’s uncanny valley performances as an extraterrestrial seductress and an Edenic robot. Both offer incisive, particular critiques about what it means to have beautiful female bodies and grapple with men forcing their will upon them. In the real world women distance themselves from their bodies all the time to cope with this trauma, looming or endured. These actresses metaphorize that experience and demonstrate the thrill of sentience scaffolding resistance as their characters wonder: “what is my body if I can’t enjoy it?”
What does this have to do with M3LL15X? For one, the long-form video is a nice pairing. In particular, “I’m Your Doll” will be used in gender and media studies classes to talk about consent and objectification for as long as graduate programs hire hipsters to teach college students about feminism. Ultimately, M3LL155X (pronounced “Melissa,” perhaps the name of one of Ex Machina’s discarded prototypes) investigates how sexiness curdles into body horror out of twigs’s boredom and disgust with the commodification of the female form. And it offers an alternative to the post-racial implications of Ex Machina’s ending by imagining a future where black female pop stars rebel alongside artificial intelligence. As an EP, it trades songs for Concepts. But it’s also one of 2015’s best science fiction movies about technology’s fraught relationship with sexuality.
Deradoorian – The Expanding Flower Planet (anticon.)
The best thing about part-singing is the moment when everyone breathes together and blends their voices to create a unified sound that vibrates like a beam of light you can hear. That’s way trippy, but Angel Deradoorian is clearly after this moment because she creates it time and again—most magically with her sister Arlene and Niki Randa–on this beautiful, unassuming record that breaks through the air like sun through windows after a rainstorm. It’s a sound she helped chase as a member of Dirty Projectors, who were basically choir nerds with psychedelic tendencies. But there’s a stabilizing force to part-singing on this record, which Deradoorian wrote largely as a manifestation of her doubt and loneliness as a Los Angeles transplant without a band. And a lesson too: good solo artists always find their way when they collaborate with other musicians.
Carly Rae Jepsen – E*MO*TION (Interscope/School Boy)
This album’s modest chart performance is baffling, but the music critics know about this one like they knew about Kylie Minogue in 2001. Pop music is ultimately about interpreting personal e*mo*tions with your voice that large audiences can immediately identify with and share. For female pop stars this often means “pretend that you like it.” This is why so many women (and Harmony Korine) have complicated feelings about Britney Spears. Such expectations also lay bare authenticity’s contradictory and unequal allocation between male and female artists (see also: Newsom, Joanna). What I like about this record—apart from how its airbrushed synths, resilient programmed drums, and neon-bright sax flourishes bullseye the pleasure center (kudos, production team)—is Jepsen’s embodied conviction as a singer. Listen to how she whispers “I’ll find your lips in the streetlight” on “Run Away With Me,” E*MO*TION’s launch pad. It’s a slyly sexy turn of phrase and an excellent line reading, because even if the song’s subject is undefined (you), Jepsen conjures a real person. As listeners we can only witness the ease of their intimacy within the ellipsis of a pop song, but we can also delight in finding our own specific people to fly with over the city, city. Which is where pop lives anyway.
It’s hard to write a tone poem to your favorite coffee mug, but you’re glad to hold it every morning. Here are some more great albums that found their way into this year’s dark corners and small moments, even though I couldn’t find clever words to describe their charms.
THEESatisfaction – EarthEE (Sub Pop)
Gavin Turek + TOKiMONSTA – You’re Invited (Young Art Records)
Noveller – Fantastic Planet (Fire Records)
Ibeyi – Ibeyi (XL)
Kelela – Hallucinogen EP (Warp/Cherry Coffee)
Björk – Vulnicura (One Little Indian)
Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color (ATO Records)
Overcoats – Overcoats EP (self-released)
The Selecter – Subculture (Vocaphone Music)
Erase Errata – Lost Weekend (Under the Sun)
Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon (Interscope)
Demi Lovato – Confident (Universal)
Frankie Cosmos – Fit Me In (Bayonet)
Holly Herndon – Platform (4AD/Rvng Intl.)
Julia Holter – Have You in My Wildness (Domino)
Bouquet – In a Dream EP (Ulrike/Folktale)