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“Dolby’s Top 20 Albums of 2015.”

* There are people who won’t let you be happy,

And people who won’t you be sad,
And in between,
Hopefully,
Some sense,
Or something better.

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It’s funny: in 2014, I thought albums were a joke, an antiquated assembly line product through which to feign false inspiration. This year, I felt like they were the one thing holding music together.
Maybe this has to do with how lots of the best albums on this list each come from LA, and how LA is such a city of isolation, like the likewise African American Don Cheadle’s character quips in Crash. Craving that “crash” is something that plagues humanity, that lawless streamlining of identities through violence, and the most riveting stuff on this list, I hope, encapsulates that. That is, provided you know what I’m talking about here, which I SORT of do (and the girl next to Cheadle in the movie SORT OF does).
Plus, albums are automatically a South Bend, Indiana native’s best friend. I used to go to shows constantly in Colorado, and I moved back here thinking well, it’s close to an Ivy League-caliber university, well, it’s close-ish to Chicago… and since I’ve moved back I’ve had a car bite the dust on me, and I’ve had no less than three, yes, three, careers implode on me, each of which I’d done with proficiency out in Colorado. I live a bike ride from the library. Yes. Give me some of that, don’t mind if I do.
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Auxiliary note: Eagles of Death Metal
I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s not a fib: right around Veteran’s Day, maybe a day before or so, I guess I found myself in a very “American” mindset, and got to wondering what Josh Homme, the lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age, was up to. As all low-lifes out there know, he drums in Eagles of Death Metal. I listened to Zipper Down, and immediately “liked” the band of facebook. There was a freshness about the music, a celebration of life, an ability to sustain tension around music phrases, and emit lyrics that are ironic and opaque. Three days later, 70-some people were killed at one of their concerts.
My interest in them has stopped. Just as I wouldn’t want to be tasked with walking in their shoes in the months following the incident, this level of calamity isn’t something I want to take in right now, even secondhand, from their words. They’ve obviously learned a lesson about life, but what I find equally important is that every person tend to life in his or her own way, and take the time to stop and slow down, sum up how we’re living, and help people out if they need it. Plus, I think they’d be the first to tell you: this isn’t the kind of fame they wanted. While there’s plenty of cheeky, cerebral pop bands out there, from Weezer, through Harvey Danger, The Tragically Hip, the Fountains of Wayne and Hellogoodbye, we can never get enough artistic voices, because they provide a path for us when our original one is thwarted by tension or disillusion. If I’m going to like the Eagles, I decided to myself, I’m going to like them because of their music, the powerful ion that got them into this combustion engine of life in 2015 in the first place.

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Honorable Mention:

Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night
Ben Khan – 1000 EP
The Dodos – Individ
Le Butcherettes – A Raw Youth
Smashing Pumpkins – Monuments to an Elegy
Refused – Freedom
Four Tet – Morning/Evening
Eagles of Death Metal – Zipper Down
Menace Beach – Ratworld
Radioactivity – Silent Kill

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20 Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood & The Rajasthan Express – Junun

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What’s the next genre in popular music? Is Israel the “new frontier”? Who better to provide it, in part, than a member of Radiohead? Shye Ben Tzur’s mad creation, via India and the Rajasthan Express, reminds us that rhythm, and music, are the universal languages. It’s fast-paced and chaotic, like modern life, and Tzur’s utterances almost imply an obedient consternation, as if he is mocking absurdity artistically, yet with deliberate, visceral power.

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19 Kamasi Washington – The Epic

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There are synths, and then there are multi-synth techniques. “Final Thought,” one of the more concise statements from the aptly titled The Epic, is like a synth track meet. Based in jazz but infused with the restless, undeniable and quintessentially American spirit of funk and soul, tracks like this both inspire and soothe, instrumentals that command people’s attention and intensify moods with the rapt elegance of edicts. Often during The Epic, the listener will marvel before the mind-boggling achievement that jazz is, and so this is the type of album that reinforces through sheer, relentless appreciation, and a whole lot of upright bass.

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18 Furious 7 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

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DJ Snake’s message chimes as all-encompassing for the entirety of this one: “Get low / Get low / Get low.” And you got to, because this baby is a bulldozer that whizzes like a Corvette, with gutty performances man-on-a-mission style courtesy of T.I., Juicy J, as well as the oldies but goodies David Guetta & Kaz James. “Payback” is the rare rap track these days that’s hard, without being even the littlest bit spiteful. This CD would make the perfect stocking stuffer, which of course, might first have the look of a gag gift, to hipster eyes.

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17 Wilco – Star Wars

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On nowhere on Star Wars, to my ears, do Wilco revert back to their old tricks. Unfortunately, they revert back to Blitzen Trapper’s old tricks (which are Blitzen Trapper’s only tricks, as we know). At first I thought the mellow guitar lead-in to “More…,” after the too-short cubist jazz experimentation of “EKG” was set the whole album into embodying a burlesque mockery of coffee shop hipsterdom, and I was sort of hoping this would happen because that would be ingenious, but it pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the album — Jeff Tweedy’s light saber. I doubt he even could tell you how many different things he’s making fun of on this album, but one of them is definitely concertgoers, by slotting the loonily mellow (albeit cosmically talented) William Tyler as the opening act. Nothing could be less befitting of this wild axe-wielding free-for-all.

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16 Dr. Len Yo – Days with Dr. Len Yo

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I was just reading this article in XXL where they said something like, You have to take in influences of every different geographical area to make people feel you. Well, you might say, New Yorkers don’t have that handicap, if they’re from certain ghettos. They just have to walk a block up straight and live to tell about it, and maybe take some acid. Where Ratking seemed to sidestep headstrong zeitgeist in favor of ubiquitous pop crowd-pleasing, the rapper Ka, now dubbed Dr. Yen Lo, sounds like he doesn’t really care if you like him or not, he’s a man possessed of devil vision and force we in more privileged neighborhoods might be inclined to call “muse.”

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15 Mike Pace and the Child Actors – Best Boy

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Oxford Collapse broke up in 2009, after the full-throttle final album Bits, and Mike Pace took FOREVER to put out new music. I realized how understandable this is, though, by interacting with him via bandcamp messages: he’s got a family now, and guess what, Best Boy, though it’s got HIM on the cover being hoisted on someone’s shoulders, carries every bit the simplicity that typically graces renewal, and the having of offspring, and all the anxiety that must go into having young kids I think also went into the making of this album, bewitchingly simple but energetic pop tunes.

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14 Up the Chain – Windows into Worlds (EP)

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A liberty of these snotty new times in which we live: an EP can actually have this much value (I’ve seen the nadir of human impatience at things like festivals, things like noticing the band’s attire, not even acknowledging what they’re doing musically). So here it is: maybe you’ll catch on to these catchy, damn-near-impeccable Wilco-type songs (touchee), notice the soft timbres of their lounge guitars.. or maybe you’ll see them live, revel before the sonic drapery of well-miked, booming drums and what seems the flawless member interplay. If you do, just remember one thing: this stuff will still be around when you’re fertilizing dandelions.

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13 Everclear – Black is the New Black

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Everclear has finally done what they should have done 15 years ago: put out a So Much for the Afterglow part II. The sheer muscle of this music is undeniable, and nothing about it sounds cliched or prepackaged, it’s still an anxiety-ridden white boy rock album (but with different members from the ’90’s Everclear). Best of all, it makes the perfect foil to 2012’s overlooked, catchy and infectious Invisible Stars, which probably had ornery record store clerks badgering them about still making people’s ears bleed. Mission accomplished.

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12 The Garden – Haha

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Alpha-male, megalomaniacal muse seems to be the only constant with this band. The Life and Times of a Paperclip (2013) was balls-to-the-wall punk rock, with vituperative guitar feedback and very little repetition in songs, and now, progressively, they go electro like many LA bands such as Liars, HEALTH and Abe Vigoda. They must have listened to the Talking Heads album Stop Making Sense quite a bit, because nothing this band does makes sense, but it’s deliciously refreshing, and trust me, the last thing they need is any sympathy tending towards the homo-erotic. This is viable frat house chaos, ringing true from the city where such a thing is the only recourse.

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11 Sir Michael Rocks – Populair

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This might seem irrelevant, but Sir Michael Rocks, one half of the Midwest’s The Cool Kids, looks a little bit like Black Milk when he stands on stage for what would become his wikipedia picture. Like Milk (who once probably half-jokingly declared himself “cooler than these other kids”), he makes his own beats. Like Milk, he evolves drastically from album to album, never redoing himself, never sounding like anyone else. Also like Milk, you get to relying on him so much to be that ONE, that crux, that nucleus of artistic vision, that sometimes you hate him when he doesn’t come through. But then you realize, that’s not even what happened, the world just changed that much since his last release, in every way imaginable, so you better be ready for something totally new when he drops again. The most amusing moment on Populair is probably the chorus of “Come Outside,” which sort of bounces between wooing some “ho” outside, and trying to bomb on someone who stole his weed, maybe. Pure Midwestern talking, the brain goes forward, the surroundings fall in line.

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10 Tijuana Panthers – Poster

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My head is spinning. I think it’s a birth defect. Another birth defect I have is just always having been a little different, and a little inept in caring if other people like me or not, save a select, inconvenient few. Kinda like the cover of Poster, which is deliberately offensive in its utter weirdness. Maybe they just know that album covers, nowadays, are a little stupid anyway. After all, the way I heard about this band was reading about their mind-blowing quadruple live bill with The Garden and a couple others. But given how ironic this band’s web of influences is — namely surf rock spanning all the way down the abyss to tortured Women-tinged indie, a booming, showstopping drummer in tow and all, they hardly even need to try to show that music can still jump out of boom box speakers or ear buds, in 2015.

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9 Beach House – Depression Cherry/Thank Your Lucky Stars

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For the record: Thank Your Lucky Stars places in the top 10 on its own strength, and Depression Cherry a commendable jaunt into “Honorable Mention” territory, but I list them in this fashion for both alphabetical and chronological traits. The former (in the previous sentence, not in the listing field), is clearly the anthemic voyage, shying away from the experimental, almost “crunk” territory the band approaches at times on its annual companion. And I would say that these albums play as perfect companions to each other, but that isn’t exactly what Beach House is doing here. Bloom was their album of trying to be everything to everyone, and in my opinion it failed for this reason, its very firm stature. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have always composed the underdog’s sanctuary, certainly even dating back to the heart-pounding moments cloaking Devotion (2008), and it’s the obtuse, askance moments on these new albums, where songs seem unable to congeal for their very narcotic obliviousness, that truly demarcate the band as an authentic muse up through this year, paying certainly far less attention to radio than Grimes seems to be.

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8 Au Pair – One Armed Candy Bear

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It takes a lot to get the technical glitz out of our minds, the feeling like everything’s been streamlined and rendered the same by the internet and the “age of communication.” One Armed Candy Bear does certain damage to that computer chip within us, with things like the percussion on “New Deal,” which seems to creep up and down that thing behind us that we’re trying to discern — horizon, or plasma screen.

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7 Blur – The Magic Whip

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It seems like at this point, in their 24 year career, Blur have made pretty much every type of rock music imaginable, from the throwaway meathead wipeout of “Song II,” to the urban gleefulness of Think Tank, on through this multifarious masterpiece The Magic Whip. And today, they are actually better than Radiohead. It is, though, a sophisticated situation, because rather than supplanting Radiohead, Blur have actually BECOME them, with haunting album tracks like “Thought I Was a Spaceman” adorning this epic LP, which is the band’s first in 12 long, painful, grimace-worthy Gorillaz-filled years. But the reason I don’t mind saying that they’re better than Radiohead, is that all along, while Radiohead was busy-fingered with jazz-eschewing futuristic pop, Blur were still the harbingers of rock and roll, pushing the envelopes of both androgyny and slackerdom unflinchingly, and now, what with “I Broadcast,” which in 30 years, if the world is a just place, will be playing in simple small town honky tonk restaurants as viable “classic rock,” Blur are the best rock band on the planet.

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6 Grimes – Art Angels

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“Scream,” track 03 on this album, has many astonishing moments, starting out like some sassy number that could have appeared on PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, before reminding you that, you know, you’re in the year 2015, it’s time to stop upstaging Soundgarden and start upstaging (or at least establishing yourself as a peer of) Flying Lotus and Caribou. And I think, I THINK, I hear a slight tempo shift in there. But just my perception of this almost illustrates how the entire possibility is beside the point: Grimes masters subtleties to an almost unsettling end, understating and truncating decimeter-long statements the whole way, anatomical segments of this music playing as arrayed and ornamented, the whole thing still playing as the work of a voluble, astonishing artist.

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5 The Maccabees – Marks to Prove it

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All of these songs seem to just be gems, veritable little jelly beans for the rapt perusal, and as with any music that’s viable in the current, it takes into account everything that’s come before: though the closest referential I can point to is America’s Junip, which spread its rosy fingers across this site’s 2013 list. There was a song on Junip called “Walking Lightly,” and that seemed to sum the whole thing up; if the ABILITY to walk lightly should escape you (and we often don’t know when it has), if that forgiving but granite smoothness of the mind should escape you, these lads are there to remind you in true brotherhood, the rhythmic and melodic miracle that is, simply, evading being an animal for 40 minutes.

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4 Beach Slang – The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us

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For six-plus months, The Magic Whip sat as my favorite rock album of this year, and I mean what I said about it playing in honky-tonks in 30 years as “classic rock.” Beach Slang, however, remind us of certain things. The Things We Do is a rock album, an indie rock album the way The Chemistry of Common Life and The Monitor were (the Slang hail from Philly, the Andro from Jersey)… dudes who get restless at the poseur prospect of imitating Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. More than that, though, it’s visceral music for the people who HAVE to IMMEDIATELY turn their anger into positivity, feeling the preciousness of this current moment, this current day and this ground me walk upon, always in the illusion of control. It only makes sense to me that the best rock album of this year, with its primordial force a la the opener, and stringed hypnosis a la the ballad “Ride the Wild Haze,” would be more awkward than cool, more hurt than sneering. The Things We Do is a gutter rainbow deaf to the current times, and for that reason able to shine a light on them.

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3 Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like S*** I Don’t Go outside

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Once again, it’s reacquaintance with hip-hop through the very reinvention of it, right from the cocksure jazz keys on “Huey.” This music is PHRESH, with a capital “ph,” in some ways even more so than Kendrick Lamar, because it incorporates the topical ambivalence so trendy today in Sir Michael Rocks, et. al., but it’s also a music lover’s album, the beats sounding more like they come from a computer that’s going to kill the world, than one that’s going to display a Tetris screen.

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2 Raury – All We Need

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Joyous, the opening titled track draws influences from a dizzying array of genres and time periods to meld into one universal human voice of both need, and triumph. Raury emits the mantra “Lord save this burning earth” with an entirely transcendent lack of non-musical credo, as if the knowledge of killings, injustices and pollution has been internalized as something that will only feed his musical output, yielding the one calling, just to hit those notes. It might take me a while before I notice too many marked differences between this album and K-OS – Joyful Rebellion. They’re really very similar in eclectic style, clashing like crests and valleys from track to track, the “beats” not so much “produced” as created on an organic level with pots and pans, or whatever he happened to have laying around the house. This is music made by a professional, with the approachability and charm of a little kid’s fingerprinting.

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1 Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

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If you wanted to be a sort of cracker-zilla, which, let’s be honest, I do, you could probably make the case that rap is the new pop. And I really don’t care to comment on Taylor Swift, at least right now, one way or the other, which places me in an isolated niche group the approximate stature of Indonesian NHL hockey players.
What I’m saying is that in hip-hop, definitive muse still reigns free, still foments, induces laughter and inspires, and Kendrick Lamar is a nice ascertainment of this. The references are not to sh** we already know — they’re to “King Kunta,” and it’s important that listeners know that unassuming, low-profile subject individuals of the lyrics’ examination play a prominent role in said artist’s psyche, sometimes, not so much for our behooving of enjoyment and positive critique of said art, but also for our own peace of mind, and faith in humanity.

 

 

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