Top 5 Songs and Albums of the Year (So Far)

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2015 went off and running early, and we’ve already received a ton of great music – but what’s been the best?

So far, the year has been one where musicians have been throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. And luckily for us, it seems like nearly everything is. To a funk revival led seemingly only by coincidentally-timed albums from Mark Ronson, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg and Joey Bada$$, to the re-emergences of Sleater-Kinney, Refused and Modest Mouse, 2015 hasn’t left anyone hungry. Drake dropped a mixtape, and Chance the Rapper dropped a jazz album. Bruno Mars went funk, Kanye went with Sir Paul, and Alabama Shakes went everywhere. It’s been a year of self-reinvention for musicians, combining and warping genres at their leisure.

(I usually start these round-ups by saying that I’m behind on new releases, but I want to overemphasize it this time – I’m so far behind on releases that it’s ridiculous. If you’re favorite didn’t make the cut, don’t worry, I probably haven’t gotten to it yet. Unless it’s Mumford & Sons).

Top 5 Songs of the Year So Far:

#5. Waxahatchee – “<“

“You’re less than me, I am nothing,” Katie Crutchfield sings on this track from her third album, “Ivy Tripp.” The indie singer finds the same acoustic/electric balance that she did on her previous album, “Cerulean Salt,” and backs the album up with rough lyrics and imaginative poetry. Halfway through this track, one of the heavier ones, the chorus gives way to a sudden, discordant mess of guitar and drums that give weight to the pained lyrics. Crutchfield sounds like she’s in a mess, and we’re there with her.

#4. Modest Mouse – “Lampshades on Fire”

Modest Mouse’s first album in seven years wasn’t anything to write home about, but the album’s lead single is a standout. The album’s environmental theme is present here, however subtle. But the song’s greatness lies in an inexplicably catchy chorus, with Isaac Brock’s standard mumble-shrieking, and a guitar line so pumped you’ll forget Johnny Marr ever played with this band. Bonus points: the music video stars Natasha Lyonne.

#3 Viet Cong – “Death”

Viet Cong made waves this year after having several shows cancelled because of their dicey, racist name. But it’s tough to brush past their debut self-titled album, a post-punk monstrosity that closes with the 11+ minute epic, “Death.” The song has an unassuming start before becoming a war-like endurance test to the listener, with the same chord repeated for over three minutes. It twists and turns through jangly rhythms, drones and angry vocals in a massive odyssey, yet still feels far shorter than it’s actual runtime.

#2. Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars – “Uptown Funk”

2015’s summer jam came too soon and has left a hole in the heat where a pop song should be. Ronson and Mars set 2015 off early, with the biggest song of the year and most prominent song in a mini-funk revival. “Uptown Funk” is one of Ronson’s best collaborations so far, with Mars adding serious vocal energy to an already amped-up beat. It’s a rare radio hit that hasn’t gotten old after 100,000 plays.

#1. Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta”

2015 has been Lamar’s year to lose, with both one of the best albums in years and a surprise collaboration with Taylor Swift (that just missed this list). To Pimp a Butterfly has a number of different themes, but Lamar hits all of them in the album’s third single. He raps about his childhood, adapting a voice of himself as a child in one verse. He raps about depression, his hometown of Compton, and racial violence. It’s an angry song about stunted progress. But it’s funky, so funky, that it presses the fun on you as well as the anger. Hanging around George Clinton and Snoop Dogg have obviously influenced Lamar. It’s his world, we’re just suffering in it.

Top 5 Albums of the Year (So Far):

#5. The Sonics – “This is the Sonics”

“This is the Sonics” should come with a disclaimer that says, “Yes, this is a new album.” Its the first album from the surviving original members of the Sonics in forty-nine years, and they play like they were stuck in a time capsule the whole time. Although the original members have been eligible for AARP for years, their hyper-kinetic garage rock still makes Jack White sweat. There’s three songs over three minutes, nine under. Each song is as riotous and great as the next. And the lyrics match the music – just like 1965 Sonics. Songs switch back and forth between cars and Satan in a mix that’s not one iota as jarring now as it was then, but no less fun. “This is the Sonics” serves as a mission statement against those musicians who think they’ll soften as they age.

#4. Alabama Shakes – “Sound & Color”

As with most genres of music, the earliest groundlayers set up limitations and expectations. And with most genres of music, the best acts today are the ones that break all those limitations. Alabama Shakes are the loosest example of “Southern rock” since Neil Young’s noise rock phase, never missing an opportunity to acknowledge a different influence. On their phenomenal sophomore album, they make nods to classic rock, indie and punk. Their sound switches from faint and whispery to full, studio-destroying with each passing track. And most importantly, each member plays off each other and each person gets their moments to shine. It’s a fun band having a great time messing around in the studio, and every moment works because of it. (original review)

#3. Heems – “Eat Pray Thug”

Back in March I made the bold claim that there wouldn’t be a better rap album in 2015 than “Eat Pray Thug.” That seems almost silly now, but it’s still going to go down as one of the albums of the year. Heems, once the frontman for Das Racist, makes a serious bid for a name on his own. His solo debut album (following the mixtape “Nehru Jackets,” which came out a long three years ago) centers around the theme of duality – namely, of being both a proud New Yorker, and a Middle Eastern New Yorker who is a victim of fright and constant post-9/11 racism. It’s a short album, but most tracks deal heavily with how conditions worsened for him after the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions. It’s a long way from “Combination Pizza Hit and Taco Bell,” but the album comes with humor, too. 2015 might not deliver a better verse than one that rhymes “blunt” with “Helen Hunt.”

#2. Sleater-Kinney – “No Cities to Love”

Back in January I made the bold, bold claim that there wouldn’t be a better albumĀ overall in 2015 than “No Cities to Love.” We were coming off a year of constant, amazing music from women and I was still living that high – although this album is nearly as good as last year’s #1, “St. Vincent.” The S-K reunion of last year made total sense – a cult indie-punk band that was once ahead of their time reformed when times caught up (and, more exposure, what with Carrie Brownstein being on Portlandia and all). Luckily, they still have issues to rage about. There isn’t a song on this album that doesn’t hold up against their back catalog, with all the fire and brimstone of three women (not) in their 20’s. Bonus points: one official music video with the Bob’s Burgers kids, and another with countless wonderful cameos, like Sarah Silverman, Miranda July, Andy Samberg and yes, Natasha Lyonne again.

#1. Kendrick Lamar – “To Pimp a Butterfly”

This was probably a no-brainer. Lamar’s anticipated album blew my early claims out of the water. “To Pimp a Butterfly,” modeled after “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is an empiric opus of a rap album, with Lamar rapping in different characters and voices, and simultaneously tackling topics like police brutality, depression, degradation, and childhood. The album layers itself around jazz, spoken word, funk and traditional rap. And at 78 minutes, it’s longer than some feature films released this year. But there isn’t a single second that could be cut, nor is there a second that isn’t enjoyable. Lamar critiques rap as a bloated genre by leaving room for only Snoop Dogg, Rapsody, George Clinton, Ron Isley and Tupac audio footage to make considerable guest spots. But at the same time, he underscores the genre as one that’s crucial to young African-American communities. The album deals with the confliction Lamar feels as a rapper with depression, and does it at a blinding speed. Look for “TPAB” at the #1 spot in December. Look for it in Greatest Ever lists in ten years’ time. (original review)

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