In lieu of an ambling introduction, I’ll just say that this year, some very good bands released some very good or promising material (15-5), but only a few, mostly newcomers or young bands (5 – 1) released what I would call great albums. Questlove called this year “monotonous” for music, and while I’m hesitant to completely agree, I will say that if you listen closely and think critically, its now easier than ever to divide the good from the bad. There were a few projects I didn’t include on here for the purpose of sticking to the “album” format – Meek is Murder’s Onward EP, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society’s Real Enemies live show and video essay performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol. 3 and Vol. 4 – that were some of my favorite musical endeavors of the year. What follows are a selection of my favorite albums.
15. Four Year Strong – Four Year Strong (Pure Noise Records)
I was on the fence about including this album, but ultimately felt that it begs mentioning because of how little critics pay heed to engineering work in compiling these lists. Yes, this is basically a bubblegum pop punk album with easycore leanings, but what makes it so interesting is that its stitched together by maybe the most impressive production work to date by Kurt Ballou (God City studio, Converge, Kvelertak, High on Fire, etc). Kurt has sort of become the go-to guy for cutting edge metallic hardcore and punk, but he’s never made something this explicitly pop-oriented. The songs are intricate constructions; every guitar tone, vocal harmony, and drum build is aimed in service of the composition. With relatively modest means (Kurt is not a producer as bands like this are accustomed to, and this album was done at his studio rather than at some extravagant recording space), Four Year Strong and Kurt have managed to craft what may be the most organic, human pop punk record ever made.
14. KEN mode – Success (Season of Mist)
Out of nowhere, Canada’s politest band completely revamped their already out-there sound; going from a more riff-based approach to a more fleshed out, sharply defined and song-based aesthetic. The production from Steve Albini (Shellac, Nirvana, Big Black, etc) helps, but the most notable thing about Success is that the band themselves have taken more care than ever to hone in on every single part and sound that makes up this album’s chaotic, strangely catchy selection of songs. It also has a beautiful flow and pacing, weaving in and around different kinds of structures and sonic palettes. For a band more than a decade into their careers that made a completely sudden stylistic shift, in many ways Success feels as though KEN mode have finally arrived. Stoked to see what happens next.
13. Ramming Speed – No Epitaphs (Prosthetic)
I’m worried that Ramming Speed are going too far under the radar, as the focus once held by classic-minded bands like Havok and Municipal Waste is turning towards bands like Ghost and Tribulation, while a younger generation of thrash bands like Black Fast and Noisem are starting to steal the now old-guard’s thunder (Hazardous Mutation is 10 years old now, after all). But Ramming Speed are a unique band – from the same generation and scene as Revocation, but with a completely different take on metal history. Taking much more from the hardcore and grind strains, and with a strong political sneer, this band has churned out maybe the most ripping start-to-finish release of the year. This is music with a purpose, but it never loses its catchiness, no riff is left aside, no chorus without a fist-pumping chant-along. However, what elevates the album above its stylistic confinements while simultaneously separating itself from the pack is a complete commitment to subject matter and scope. No Epitaphs is self-assured, in an age of bands that are better at dressing up their Facebook profile pictures than they are actually playing riffs.
12. Krallice – Ygg Huur (Self-released)
A surprise album from one of the most fiercely individualist black metal projects going, Ygg Huur sees the band at once honing in, yet also broadly experimenting with their particular musical language. Where their earlier releases were a bit more thematically ambitious and consonant in approach even when they played “out” (and therefore closer to classic genre-black metal), Ygg Huur sees the band going even further down the rabbit hole of multi-voice and layered rhythmic approach usually favored by guitarist Colin Marston’s other projects, Dysrhythmia and Gorguts. It’s a really entertaining listen, and I’m excited to see where it goes – particularly if guitarist Mick Barr can bring in even more of his own experimental side. Although bands like Deafheaven, Wolves in the Throne Room, etc get all the press attention (they’re much prettier than Krallice, so it is understandable), Krallice are on to something that no other band in the American black metal revival has touched on.
11. Night Birds – Mutiny at Muscle Beach (Fat Wreck Chords)
One of my favorite punk bands going today that favors a more classic approach to their sound and songs, New Jersey’s underground mainstay Night Birds have been releasing quality material for years now, attracting fans in the hardcore, punk, and metal scenes alike. I first became aware of them through Municipal Waste’s Tony Foresta, who ranked their 2011 full-length The Other Side of Darkness as one of his favorites of the year, and eventually began seeing them play dozens of support shows in the East Coast area.
What’s interesting about Night Birds (other than that they rip) is that although they play a familiar, well-trodden style of punk, the songs are imbued with creative surf-rock and thrash flourishes as well as thoughtful lyrics about modern disaffectation, corruption, and youthful rebellion. Mutiny at Muscle Beach is their rallying cry, the album that Refused’s Freedom wants to be, but is too half-incubated to quite reach. Every cut is an attack, a critique on the state of how fucked-up everything is in this country, as well as a cathartic release: through shred.
10. Intronaut – The Direction of Last Things (Century Media)
Intronaut are one of those incredible, boundary pushing modern metal bands that have yet to make an album that’s completely satisfied me start to finish. There are qualities about The Direction of Last Things that I love – their continual development, the raw feeling captured by the band recording live this time round – and things that make it hard for me to go all the way for this album. But look, it’s pretty fantastic, and contains some of my favorite material they’ve done to date. It’s a pleasure to watch this band grow and change, and I feel that they’ve got all the right ingredients and intentions in place; I’m ready for them to focus their abilities into a fully fleshed-out project.
9. Imperial Triumphant – Abyssal Gods (Code666)
Abyssal Gods is a labyrinthine experiment. It’s a boundary-pushing piece of music that doesn’t fuse its influences so much as it glides between them, creating a new language out of black metal, symphonic metal, prog, noise, sludge, and everything in between. Its rough production (a complete mess of bad edits, clipping drums, and distorted pre-amps self-recorded by the band and organized by mixing engineer Colin Marston) and atonal riffs mask the density of the compositions to an unintended powerful effect – as though every turn in the maze reveals four or five other paths. There’s a (minor) trend in technical death metal and black metal bands in recent times to create music that toes the line between absurdist noise and genre-metal, but Imperial Triumphant is the only band I’ve heard that picks up on and continues the work done by pioneers like Gorguts.
8. Grimes – Art Angels (4AD)
IMO Grimes is one of the most maligned, misunderstood artists working in pop music today. Too weird and uncategorizable to reach the mainstream heights of a Taylor Swift, but with the crossover appeal of a Kimbra combined with the support of trendsetting media, she’s consistently put under the microscope of the worst corners of Internet culture. I actually think there’s a close relationship between Grimes and Kimbra that sort of resembles a more independent Taylor Swiftian path in modern pop; they’re both artists who write their own songs, who perform them themselves (to a certain degree), who produce them themselves (again, to a certain degree), and who maintain a close watch on and control over their image/marketing and overall presentation of themselves and their art. Art Angels isn’t on the level of Kimbra’s The Golden Echo, but there is a punky charm to the humbly performed (but well-engineered) songs. More importantly, it’s an album with a consistent vision – and however limited it is by Grimes’ rabbit-holing too self consciously on her own quirks, there are just so many… bangers… on this thing.
7. John Carpenter – Lost Themes (Sacred Bones)
One of the greatest and most misunderstood filmmakers of his generation, John Carpenter’s (Escape From New York, The Thing, Halloween) artistic purpose is to affect a transcendent experience in the audience that goes beyond the “horror” genre tag that he’s been assigned by critics and fans. In his best work, he achieves this through a perfect marriage of image and sound, creating a rhythm between filmic-sequence and music to match his intricately constructed universes. He’s one of a few filmmakers who also wrote the scores to some of his most iconic work – some of which, including Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13, were done in as little as a single day. Although not trained in improvisation, Carpenter came from a musical upbringing (his father was a hand-drummer and chair of the music department at Western Kentucky University) that shows in his work, which breathes with a kind of raw, instinctual feeling seen in the best kind of music.
His new album and first piece of original music work divorced from a film project, Lost Themes, is an interesting one. A combination of digital synthesizers and live instruments (drums and guitar provided by his son Cody and friend Daniel Davies), this album marks the first time John has worked outside of the analog synthesizer world. What’s so moving about the music (other than how hauntingly beautiful and groovy the compositions are) is that it reveals an important truth about the gear used to make it: a great artist will always find new ways to explore their craft, regardless of the tools they use at any given moment.
6. Sumac – The Deal (Profound Lore)
With the rise in popularity of more technical, highly-produced, well-performed metal through bands like Animals as Leaders and Periphery, there’s been a simultaneous hoisting up of those kinds of bands as being “progressive” and “forward-thinking.” Which in some ways they are, but when a band like Sumac comes along with an album like The Deal, we’re reminded of what happens when great musicians come together not to “be progressive,” but to just play with and experiment with the fundamental vocabulary of extreme music.
Which is exactly what guitarist Aaron Turner (Isis, Hydra Head Records, Old Man Gloom) drummer Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists, The Armed) and bassist Brian Cook (Botch, Russian Circles) have done here. There’s a lot to marvel at with The Deal, but what sticks out to me after almost a year of having this album under my skin is how mysterious it is. Sumac have all the majesty of a Master of Puppets, but are also informed by years of playing in bands that have “gone out.” The result is equal parts triumphance and chaos, coming from one young gun and two scene veterans. It’s rare to see an artist in metal whose career has the best stuff in front of it rather than behind, and Aaron Turner is one of those artists: a national treasure of this genre of music.
5. Retox – Beneath California (Epitaph)
Retox’s sophomore LP Beneath California plays like the hardcore version of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. But unlike Vice, it’s not so much an investigation into the root of American evil as it is an indictment of the scum buried beneath the gloss, glitz, and sunshine of one of the country’s most vapid states. Nothing escapes the ire of vocalist Justin Pearson (The Locust, Head Wound City, 31G Records, etc)’s pen, as he charges every agent of corruption, vice, injustice, and prejudice with their due.
Beneath California is the sound of the underground – a feral cry from the margins of society that capitalism left behind. It’s completely insane, and its’ West Coast nihilism is a far cry from the shinier punk, the purposefully shittily recorded “real hardcore,” as well as the Kurt Ballouian metallic hardcore being produced these days. Retox are doing something different; something not easily described despite how established their stylistic approach is (at this point, how many albums have these guys collectively put out through their other bands?). I’m happy to be alive while Justin Pearson, Michael Crain & co. are making such unique and wild albums, in an era where every single day, dime-a-dozen cut-and-paste hardcore bands get paraded in front of me by the Pitchforks of the world.
4. Baroness – Purple (Abraxan Hymns)
As I wrote in my review for MetalSucks, I found Purple to be an incredibly life-affirming, mature record, coming from a band that has not only been through unthinkable tragedy, but is also hot off their most experimental release yet in Yellow & Green. The raw ingredients of Purple are classic – riffs, leads, and grooves – but their execution and intention is personal in ways that scores of younger classic or genre minded bands (the Tribulations, Ghosts, etc. that are highly visible in the scene) are not yet capable of accessing.
I covered my feelings on this album in the review, and all I’ll say here is that this time around, Baroness’ experiments are subtler; they’re buried in between the cracks of Purple’s finely honed compositions, as opposed to dominating them as on Yellow & Green. They’re also more complicated – where Yellow & Green would have a few great ideas per song on even the strongest cuts, Purple has several per minute. The simplicity and directness of the songs belies the intricate effort placed on things like dozens of guitar tones, rich keyboard atmospherics, and layers of percussion. This album is the rebirth of Baroness spiritually as well as musically. They’ve discovered a new language, familiar for the band yet continuously rewarding.
3. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg)
In the span of a few short years, Kendrick Lamar has gone from underground sensation to mainstream rap scene leader, and with his new album, he’s transcended categorization to become one of the most important artists working in any medium today.
There’s so much to say about To Pimp a Butterfly – it’s a gorgeous production, a rallying cry for misaligned youth, a virtuosic display of wordplay and sonic mastery. But above all, it’s a love letter to the history of black music in America that spans soul, rock, hip-hop, funk, jazz, and everything in between. Through both conscious and unconscious efforts, Kendrick invokes the staunch individualism of James Brown, the flick-of-the-middle-finger of the Bad Brains, the spiritual transcendence of Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix, the free space-jazz of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, and the auteurist rock reclamist expressions of Jack Johnson-era Miles Davis.
It’s also a deeply personal work – maybe even more so than Good Kid M.A.A.D. City – that delves less into Kendrick’s life story and more into the darkest corners of his feelings about being alive (and black, and American, and being a kid from Compton who rose to international stardom, among others) today. It’s one of the most honest pieces of music that I’ve ever heard, and also one of the riskiest. Kendrick doesn’t acknowledge the elephant in the room so much as he slaughters it, allowing the animal to bleed out and forcing his audience to watch. But the concluding message of believing in yourself in the face of evil, and accepting that there are no easy answers to the myriad social, cultural, and racial issues that Kendrick charges head on, in order to find some kind of happiness and peace in the world, makes this album – like it’s title – as beautiful as it is tragic.
2. Kamasi Washington – The Epic (Brainfeeder)
Tenor saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Kamasi Washington’s new triple-album jazz epic (an actually appropriate use of the word) has a closer relationship to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly than you might think – and not just because many of the musicians that perform on The Epic were session guys on Kendrick’s album (many of who form the core of what is considered a new vanguard in West Coast jazz). It’s an album that, like To Pimp a Butterfly, engages with universal (and at times cosmic) themes of black American identity, but not through the prism of clickbait Salon articles about social injustice: through the performer’s own thoughts and feelings – as conflicting and contradictory as they are relatable.
Ranking these two albums is tough, but for me what makes The Epic stand out where To Pimp a Butterfly is unable to is that Kamasi expresses many of the kinds of feelings Kendrick does, not through the poetry of language, but through the poetry of his horn. Kamasi takes his first solo of the album on “Changing of the Guard” after he lets two others go first, showing a humbleness and respect for his fellow players rarely seen in modern music today – and then lets loose. Although this album is packed full of beautiful compositions, gorgeous layering, and expressive solos, it’s on this opening track that Kamasi seems to engage with it all: the ghosts of jazz’s past, what it feels like to be on the fringes of society, and what it means to play a “dead” music in modern times. It’s an incredibly moving solo, and his use of the saxophone’s wailing harmonics towards its’ climax is reminiscent of the ways that Jimi Hendrix used the wah pedal to excavate the underbelly of American society in the 60’s.
1. The Armed – Untitled (No Rest Til Ruin)
In my piece for MetalSucks this past summer, “The Armed Are the Band America Deserves,” I called these guys the best punk band going today, praising the nuances in the rebellion of their music, not just to the classic hardcore adage of rebelling against conformist mainstream society, but also against the current social norms in the underground music world itself. As the album has grown with me over the last several months, more and more I’m reminded of the breakthrough albums of the previous generation of bands – Jane Doe, Calculating Infinity, We Are the Romans – and how those albums stripped away all the fat in hardcore and metal, choosing to go right to the primal things that make extreme music great. Much like the generation of post-punk and post-hardcore bands before them, like Wire and Drive Like Jehu, did for those respective genres.
The more I meditate on Untitled, the more I think it’s one of the great albums of our time because it peels away even more layers from what Converge (from whom guitarist and engineer-extraordinaire Kurt Ballou twiddled the nobs on Untitled, with a master from perhaps the greatest metal mastering engineer working today, Audiosiege’s Brad Boatright), Dillinger Escape Plan, Isis, Botch, and bands of that ilk did in the 2000’s. The Armed go right to the core: every chorus is catchy, every riff is meaningful, every song is a banger. And equally importantly, they strip away all the things that aren’t necessary to even identify as a band in 2015 – they are basically anonymous, they don’t play the games of the underground metal development circuit, they don’t tour, they mislead the press, they don’t beg for likes and shares and comments on social media. They don’t care about any of those things, and through that, they reveal stuff that happens in between the cracks of what it means to call yourself a musician and artist in the modern age. They have a name, and they have music. The latter is what they care about, and that’s precisely what is so radical and unique about Untitled.