From the Chance the Rapper to the Left Shark to the "Why You Always Lyin'" guy, here's everything editor Kyle Kramer loved this year.
Wow! Remember a year ago? It’s hard to believe that there was a time before we knew about the Left Shark, before we had wondered what color the dress was, before we had ever asked “what are those” about a pair of shoes, before we had watched Hillary Clinton whip and nae nae, before The Game became #MeatprintPapi. Are we better off now? I don’t know. But I do know that there’s no turning back. Onwards and upwards, I always say! The future is bright. But before we dab forward into the Trumpian hellscape of 2016, it’s worth reflecting on all the great stuff that happened this year because, after all, it was a phenomenal year for music. Practically everyone imaginable put out albums (or, in the case of Kanye/Rihanna/Frank Ocean dangled them over our heads), and even the Big Sean one was good. There was music everywhere, and every week there was a new streaming service for listening to it.
If you clicked on this article for the “worst” part of my year, it’s probably buried somewhere in that last sentence: The downside to there being so much high-profile pop music—particularly to almost every A-list rapper releasing an album—was that it wasn’t a great year for exploring new artists and digging through the up-and-coming stuff I love to cover. While there were some cool breakout artists (I could not be happier about Fetty Wap blowing up!), I regret not having the time to sift through random songs on YouTube because I was busy listening to, like, The Weeknd because of, like, work. And I really regret that we’ve entered a new reality for the music business where, contrary to the original promise of the internet and its suggestion of more democratic access to information than ever before, we’re seeing a return to a few very powerful channels of distribution. But before I decry the end of music because some tech CEOs and corporate social media accounts have figured out how to squeeze more money out of the kids creating culture and put a vice grip on localized scenes, let’s get to the good stuff.
Well, actually, let’s take a quick detour to make fun of Charlie Puth and Meghan Trainor: Y’all, what is going on there? By all rights, “Bang Dem Sticks” should be the worst pop song of the year! But then you had to go ahead and one-up yourselves and collaborate to make “Marvin Gaye,” a song so limp that you’d think Marvin Gaye was best known for retreating from society and taking a vow of celibacy. But I digress. What were the best things of the year? Ooooh baby! Let’s talk, primarily about the things I haven’t talked about too much on this website already (links to some of the other stuff in my list-list below):
Chance the Rapper & Co.
OK, so I've heard Surf dismissed as “Sesame Street rap” and Broadway musical material, but here's the thing: Chance is meant to be universal. Just watch Chance's performance on SNL (the first ever by an artist not signed to a major record label, by the way) or on Windy City Live. Watch the “Sunday Candy” video. Watch Chance and Saba performing “Angels” on Colbert. Chance's music is empowering on a very obvious level, which is to say everyone feels included.
There's a very palpable sense in The Social Experiment's music that the whole thing is a community affair, and that that's how music should be. There's the obvious manifestation of the idea in the way that Surf (once again, while we're handing out accolades, downloaded more than a million times this summer) is jam-packed full of features from pretty much every artist you can think of. Shouts out to Busta Rhymes and Erykah Badu for coming through. But then there's a simpler and broader sense, which is the idea, latent in Chance the Rapper's music since the beginning, that part of the magic just comes from a group of friends believing in themselves and making music because why not, that maybe anyone could be the next Chance—not unlike the way that Chance took Kanye's College Dropout and ran with it until he himself was a rapper. Chance has fostered the idea with his Open Mike series in Chicago and the general air of encouragement that comes from things like covering the Arthur theme song. It's not much of a leap to see how teenagers might be inspired by a guy just a couple years older than them taking things so fully into his own hands and being so resolutely DIY.
So I am generally thrilled with The Social Experiment and also Chance's social experiment, and I found it really fun and encouraging to watch this music being made this year. And what great things it yielded! “Angels” is an actual radio hit that puts way the fuck on for Chicago and features one of the city's coolest up-and-coming artists. “Familiar” proves not only what we already knew—that King Louie sounds amazing over any kind of beat—but also features the most rush-inducing intro to a verse of the year, in the form of Quavo yelling out “Quavo! Migo!” right as the music drops out. There's a whole mixtape with Lil B. Despite my broader reservations about the rapper who I share a name with (KYLE) and Big Sean, “Wanna Be Cool” is so positive and exciting it's impossible not to love: Who can't embrace the appeal of being a dork sometimes? And “Sunday Candy,” well, that's a rap song my mom could love. I remember talking to Chance's manager, Pat, right before Acid Rap came out, and he said something about how Chance was going to be as big as Michael Jackson because his appeal extends from little kids to grandparents. I buy it more than ever.
Ty Dolla $ign – Free TC
Ever since the first Beach House tape in 2012, I’ve been waiting for Ty to return to the immersive bacchanalia of that tape and put aside the bloated, guest-heavy songs that popped up on some of the intervening projects. Earlier this year, Ty did exactly that, in the form of a quick stopgap EP called Airplane Mode, which was obviously great. But then with his album he gave us something I’m not sure any of us knew we wanted from him, a rich world of orchestral scoring and guitar strumming that splits the difference between horny singer-songwriter, horny pop hitmaker, and horny 90s R&B enthusiast. He even got Jagged Edge on this shit! It’s lush and restrained and both totally in line with the moment while sounding like nothing else. But where the album really excels is where it captures the spirit of those old R&B groups, who would make a whole album of baby-making music and then throw a couple gospel tracks on there for good measure. In the same way, Free TC may be over-the-top when it swings by the stable, but it’s also straight-up spiritual, and the two sides coexist just as seamlessly and counterintuitively as they tend to in real life. “Guard Down” offers comfort whether it’s pulling you close and giving a pat on the back or taking flight in the club at 3 AM. “Miracle” is powerful and redemptive, and it’s enhanced—against all logic—by the sheer beauty of “Wherever,” the sex jam that bubbles up in its second half. I think Ty still has something even better than this album in him, but Free TC is stunning.
Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
I slept on Jason Isbell’s last album, but this one blew me away from the opening moments. Those lines on the first song that go “I'm learning how to be alone, fall asleep with the TV on / And I fight the urge to live inside my telephone” are such a wonderfully modern vignette, a perfect encapsulation of a certain state of being, and exactly what the hell a country song should sound like. Those kinds of details are throughout: There may be no setting more vividly rendered on a song this year than the fading, majestic hotel in “Flagship,” which immediately tells you everything about the tired despair and redemptive hope of the respective relationships on that song. This album instantly feels like something that you’ve lived with forever, and I hope to keep doing exactly that for a long time to come.
Jeremih – Late Nights
Even though Jeremih’s 2012 Late Nights mixtape was one of my favorite R&B projects in years, by the time, a year into this album rollout and nearly a year before its release, that J. Cole had stuck his foot in the collective mouth of music listeners everywhere I was starting to lose hope. Jeremih may have taken his time, and he may not ever feel like it’s a finished product, but he came through with a project worth the wait. I have lots more to say about this album (stay tuned), but front to back it’s so solid and focused and beautifully minimal that I can’t believe I ever doubted Jeremih. All I want to do is take a trip to the tropics and listen to this.
My Top Albums of 2015, Probably in the Wrong Order:
1. Future – 56 Nights
2. Jeremih – Late Nights
3. Carly Rae Jepsen – EMOTION
4. Future – DS2
5. Kehlani – You Should Be Here
6. Grimes – Art Angels
7. Jamie xx – In Colour
8. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
9. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment – Surf
10. Miguel – Wildheart
11. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
12. Drake – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
13. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
14. Hop Along – Painted Shut
15. Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside
16. Ty Dolla $ign – Free TC
17. Fetty Wap – Fetty Wap
18. Young Thug – Slime Season
19. Young Thug – Barter 6
20. iLoveMakonnen – iLoveMakonnen 2/Drink More Water 5
21. Kelela – Hallucinogen
22. Vince Staples – Summertime 06
23. Mick Jenkins – Wave[s]
24. Katie Dey – asdfasdf
25. Rae Sremmurd – SremmLife
General honorable mentions for good artistry to: 21 Savage, EarthGang, The Outfit, TX, Michael Christmas, DonMonique, Cousin Stizz, Goldlink, Boosie BadAzz, Nef the Pharoah, Boogie, Heems, Towkio, Father, Chance the Rapper and Lil B, Dej Loaf, Meek Mill, D.R.A.M.
23 Songs That Didn’t Make Our Year-End List but That I Enjoyed Immensely and That Would Have if This Weren’t a Bullshit Democracy Where I Have to Respect My Coworkers' "Opinions"
Young Dro – "We In Da City"
Tate Kobang – "Bank Rolls"
Thomas Rhett – "Die a Happy Man"
iLoveMakonnen feat. Ceej and Rome Fortune – "True Thang"
Omarion feat. Chris Brown and Jhene Aiko – "Post to Be"
Post Malone – "White Iverson"
Kendrick Lamar – "King Kunta"
Ty Dolla $ign feat. Kanye West and Puff Daddy – "Guard Down"
Miguel – "Waves"
Chance the Rapper feat. Saba – "Angels"
Chief Keef and Lil Durk – "Decline"
Jeremih (not feat. J. Cole, ideally) – "Planez"
Rihanna feat. Kanye West and Paul McCartney – "FourFiveSeconds"
Chief Keef – "Ain't Missing You"
Carly Rae Jepsen – "Warm Blood"
Kehlani – "Wanted"
Fetty Wap – "RGF Island"
Jamie xx feat. Romy – "Loud Places"
Courtney Barnett – "Depreston"
Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment – "Sunday Candy"
Drake – "10 Bands"
iLoveMakonnen – "I Loved You"
Chris Stapleton – "Whiskey and You"
Another Song That Did Make Our List but That I’m Including Because It Made Me Cry a Bunch This Year
The Song I Listened to Most in 2015 That Doesn't Actually Count as a 2015 Song Even Though the Video Came Out in 2015 so You Could Make the Argument and Believe Me I Tried
Top One Place It Goes Down
Top One Thing on the Internet This Year
Top One Catchphrase Spawned by the Top One Thing on the Internet This Year
Some Other Good-Ass Videos
General Word of Appreciation for DJ Khaled's Snapchat
It is a major key to success.
General Words of Wisdom for 2015 and Always
Bless up. Happy Holidays. See you in 2016.
Follow Kyle Kramer on Twitter.