*pulls tarp off of website, shakes out the cobwebs*
Hey. How was your year?
I meeeeeaaaan, look. I’m not going to defend the lack of activity here. I work nights, I’m not perpetually tired, but I’m pretty tired a lot of the time. I wrote some stuff for some people, but a lot of where my non-day job hours of consciousness ended up was on the retooled RadioPFG. What was once a semiregular directionless podcast has now become, on the strength of the two years I’ve spent as a junior-intermediate crate digger, a weekly hourlong show I produce myself live every Saturday at 2:00 pm. I broadcast it on Mixlr every week, then toss the newest episode on Soundcloud for the following seven days. I’ve really enjoyed doing it, and the feedback from the friends who are listening regularly has encouraged me enough to keep working on it from week to week.
If there’s one thing working on the show has done, is that it’s allowed me to re-engage with music on a deeper level than I have in a few years. After years of writing these preambles and lamenting that music was boring me or that I couldn’t find 20 songs that I loved in any given year, I had more music than I could handle in 2015, and what’s more, I was actively seeking it out, which is new. Record collecting and programming a show has made my tastes weirder and (no surprise here) more global. Let’s take a stroll through the songs that blessed my ears the most this year, not the objectively superior, not necessarily the most innovative, just the ones I liked the best, in no order.
Gesu no Kiwami Otome – Watashi Igai Watashi Janai No
Sakanaction – Shin Takara Jima
One of the more puzzling trends to come out of Japan this year was the latest “band boom”, a phenomenon that bubbles up into the country’s mainstream every few years. Obviously I had no idea this was even a thing until my Queens, the Holy Trinity, the Three-in-One Nocchiyukachan shared a stage with Gesu no Kiwami Otome on Music Station back in May. I had no idea who the sharp crew in pink were, but the Tumblr crowd seemed pretty excited about it, and I appreciated they seemed to give the Queens their proper respect, so I checked them out. Holy shit was I glad I did.
I’ve gone on record numerous times that music made from stringed instruments plugged into amplifiers doesn’t really do much for me, and I can acknowledge that there might be a patronizing tug of Orientalism in how wholeheartedly I embrace rock that comes from Japan. I tend to always find the bands that are taking more risks, are more genre-fluid and more gender-balanced than most of what the flannel-shirted and bearded crowd in the West can offer me (Father John Misty will never have a home here), whether it was the pillows back in 1999 or Gesuotome and Sakanaction in 2015.
Gesuotome is an indie supergroup that started as a lark among current and former members of Indigo La End, Crimson, and Microcosm that messed around and scored an endorsement deal with Coke and the year’s most viewed YouTube clip in Japan for “Watashi…” As evident in that song, and every single to come afterwards, they tend to succumb to math-rock wankery reeeeal easily: the guiding principle seems to be, do everything you can at every moment. But the wankery never proves a hindrance on this track, whether it’s (my drumming waifu) Hona Ikoka’s 16th snare notes in the first verse, Enon Kawatani’s pinch harmonics on the outro or Kyujitsu Kacho’s utter refusal to give the track space to breathe. An album of that shit might prove exhausting [and subsequent singles are starting to prove that theory], but in this tight 4-minute burst it’s perfection.
Six months of keeping up with Gesuotome’s comings and goings meant that Youtube started to think it had me figured out, which is probably why Sakanaction’s video for “Shin Takara Jima” fronted my recommended screen for a week last month, so I checked it out. When it was over, I mashed the replay button, and did it two more times. When I first brought the song to friends, I compared it to Interpol learning to have fun, but it’s not unfair to compare it to if any of their band boom colleagues learned to enjoy themselves (I write this after just watching an October episode of Music Station where Sakanaction followed Gesu’s self-serious performance of self-serious song “Otonatic,” by busting out the cheerleaders, two-stepping and lighted signs of the “Shin…” video before said cheerleaders handed them their instruments and wheeled drum and keyboard risers on the stage. It was glorious).
We won’t even discuss that the b-side of their single is a blissed out disco-jam of Rhodes stabs and falsetto vocals, inspired by 1.00 am dancing at Tokyo’s Liquid Room, that has every right being on this list as well. With another pair of badass women on bass and keys, and a tendency to stop a rock show in the middle to all hop on laptops and host a dance party for 45 minutes, Sakanaction strikes me as an act with zero fucks to give, and was my most pleasant surprise of the year.
Perfume – Toumei Ningen
It’s a given at this point that if the Queens release something, it will end up here, so I’d forgive you for thinking they were getting a pass on this list because I worship at the base of their four-inch heels. But that’s not what we have here. In a somewhat underwhelming year filled with midtempo, inoffensive commercial tie-ins and [deliciously] schmaltzy anniversary songs, “Toumei Ningen” [Invisible Man] is actually a perfectly paced slice of airy synths and breathy existentialist vocals descending from the heaven of Yasutaka Nakata’s hard drive directly into your hungry ears. Don’t ever get comfortable with them, because once you drop your guard these women will drop the theme song to the best anime space opera that never existed and snatch your wig clean off your head.
And that stutter after the first chorus?? 😱😱
4Minute – Crazy
f(x) – 4 Walls
When some people find out I stan for Perfume like I do, they automatically assume I’ll see it for KPop with the same sort of fanaticism. It makes sense, KPop dwarfs their Japanese counterparts as far as international recognition is concerned (boy band Big Bang sold out Toronto’s Air Canada Centre last October), but it’s just never clicked for me. Whereas I’ve always found JPop distinctly Japanese (again, this is arrogant and colonialist, I’m no authority on what makes anything uniquely Japanese, I really just mean ‘weirder) KPop always felt like Western pop sung in Korean, often succumbing to a sort of takeout restaurant tackiness, lots of synth horns and jazz hands.
But 2015 was the year KPop finally broke for me. After taking notice of Ace of Angels becuase I want to marry all of them, nothing to do with the music (damn you, “eye contact videos“), my friend (and Singles Jukebox contributor) Jessica Doyle passed me the video for 4Minute’s “Crazy” and I sat stunned with my mouth agape. Sure, it’s just a club banger like a million other club bangers, but something about that mix of Hyuna’s snotty snarl, that kick step choreo in the chorus, the broken glass, the attitude, THE BUCKET HATS, had me flipping tables real and imagined throughout the year.
f(x) came to me through another friend who knew that group member Krystal Jung was my favourite part of hate-watching “The Heirs.” Doing my due diligence gave me the group’s compelling underdog story: “4 Walls” [single and album] is the group’s comeback after their fifth member Sulli left the group (ostensibly to focus on acting, but more likely due to negative fan reaction for having the nerve to get a boyfriend, which is a discussion for another time). Seemingly a low priority for their management firm (which also has KPop titans Girls Generation, SHINee and Red Velvet in its portfolio), f(x) had the balls not only to put out a UK two-step garage jam fifteen years after Craig David broke the style to mass audience, they fucked around and made it a hit. In a pop landscape that so often skews 80’s or new wave in its revivalism, “4 Walls” sounded like little else I came across this year.
Action Bronson f/ Chance the Rapper – Baby Blue
Bit of a rough year for Bronsolino, from getting shunted off the biggest NXNE stage following protests over his lyrical content to getting spanked by Ghostface over a perceived diss in the fall. In further insult, his appearance on this list has nothing to do with him and everything to do with Marc Ronson’s production and Chance’s feature where he damns a philandering woman to “never get off Fridays, and work at a Friday’s that’s always busy on Fridays.” Come on, now.
Janet Jackson – Broken Hearts Heal
Jackson’s comeback Unbreakable is a playbook on how to confidently glide back into your lane while avoiding the pitfalls of trend-hopping. I could have picked any of at least four songs for this list, but this tribute to her late brother Michael is her best homage to lost loved ones since “Together Again.”
Thundercat – Them Changes
My favourite thing to do this year was to put this jam on in a car full of people expecting it to turn into Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” and then watch their reactions morph from confused irritation into delighted surprise.
Thundercat has always been an artist that does whatever the hell he wants, success be damned, because his musicianship is so far beyond what most are capable of. Teaming with Brainfeeder partners Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington, “Them Changes” proved that Cat’s effortless ability to cross over might be his most devilish trick of all.
Jidenna f/ Kendrick Lamar – Classic Man (Remix)
Given my preference towards sneakers and fitteds, it might surprise you to learn that when called upon, I exhibit surprisingly dandyish tendencies. I had an important wedding to attend last fall that had me practicing my pocket square poufing for weeks beforehand, and I probably listened to this song four hundred times during the process, including as I primped and preened before leaving for the reception. Somewhat disappointing that Kendrick’s verse re-inserted the word ‘bitch’ into a contemporary R&B song that so impressively avoided it, but his presence on the remix gave this song the extra push it needed to earn its deserved surge up from underground.
A gentleman is not above feeling himself when he’s buttoning his shirtsleeves, and Jidenna and Wondaland gave us that rarest thing: a “Freakum Dress” for the fellas.
Hiatus Kaiyote – Jekyll
On the first episode of RadioPFG [Saturdays @ 2:00PM EST!], I likened Australia’s Hiatus Kaiyote to the offspring of Tool and Jamiroquai, which is a clumsy if not inaccurate comparison. RnB, jazz and soul get run through a woodchipper of time-signature changes and lead singer Nai Palm’s (still not over that name, eesh) relentless and versatile vocals. Jekyll, a song that first floored me on a live vid from three years ago, finally got the studio treatment on the band’s 2015 sophomore effort Choose Your Weapon, stuffing neo-soul, brazilian rhythms and math rock polyrhythms through its musical blender and pouring out a glass of space-age future funk. I can’t wait to see where this group heads to next.
Emily King – Distance
Nothing to overthink, just some chilled out blue-eyed soul from a New York singer/songwriter whose years of grinding might finally be starting to get her some wider attention.
Vince Staples – Norf Norf
I’ll go on record as stating I was not as immediately enamored with Summertime ’06 as a lot of other listeners (I might have snarked that it sounded like they only bought one drum machine) even though I never questioned Staples’s abilities as a rapper. I’ve warmed to the album somewhat in the months following its release, but I never needed to warm up to ‘Norf Norf.’ Vince’s flow nimbly dances throughout the dirgy howl and 808 haymakers of the beat, punctuating each verse with a hook genius in its powerful simplicity. However I feel about his body of work as a whole, Staples was a blessing for rap this year, as an artist and commentator, and will undoubtedly continue to be.
Oddisee – First Choice
Up until now, I had erroneously been under the impression that Oddisee was solely a producer, which might have been why I didn’t give 2015’s The Good Fight the attention it deserved. “First Choice” blends his surprisingly soulful singing voice with a flow more versatile than I expected over a bop of a beat lightly seasoned with crisp guitar chords. Get caught up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him break before you know it.
Towkio f/ Chance the Rapper, Lido and Eryn Allen Kane – Heaven Only Knows
A member of Chicago’s savemoney crew along with Chance, Donnie Trumpet and Vic Mensa among others, Towkio dropped his Wav Theory mixtape this year to some acclaim, which includes this heavenly slice of uplift. When I played this on RadioPFG, I said the first time I heard it at 2.00 AM it affected me so strongly I put my hand to Jesus, and it was no lie. If this jam doesn’t get your spirit soaring, you may want to just stop listening to reading me, we clearly want very different things out of music.
Carly Rae Jepsen – Run Away With Me
Call Ms. Carly Rae the latest recipient of the Katy Perry “Teenage Dream” Award for Song I Have No Business Liking as Much as I Do. Joyful throb of a beat? Check. Background vocals layered in reverb? Oh yeah. Punchy, syllabic chorus? Mmhmm. All the ingredients in play for a perfectly crafted pop confection. Word has it the lackluster performance of Jepsen’s album E•MO•TION kept pundits baffled, but when has sales ever reflected quality?
The Internet f/ Vic Mensa – Go With It
I can hang with the notion that The Internet’s 2015 album Ego Death is worth the acclaim it’s been garnering, but it was one of those albums I knew I was never going to return to because it often trafficked in that downtempo druggy haze that the kids are all about these days, which makes the energetic bump of “Go With It” such a welcome surprise for me. I’ve always loved Syd’s voice, and her playful delivery in this jam made it perfect for my autumn strolls.
Anderson.Paak f/ Schoolboy Q – Am I Wrong?
Mr. Paak squandered none of the momentum gained from his frequent appearances on Dr. Dre’s album Compton last summer, releasing an EP with Knxwledge (one of my favourite producers currently) and dropping a series of quality singles on his Soundcloud, including this piece of throwback funk, complete with Off the Wall-era MJ horn arrangements and gospel soul claps. Nothing but big things out of this dude going forward, guaranteed.
Pusha T – Untouchable
A loopy Moog, a marching snare, and Biggie vocal stabs courtesy of Timbaland combined with Push nonchalantly rapping his ass off?
Seriously, I don’t need anything else from him.
Jamie xx f/ Romy – Loud Places
A lot of the year-end celebratory ink spent for Jamie xx’s In Colour was given to “Good Times,” and rightly so, it’s a perfectly crafted piece of sunshine and the least obnoxious appearance of Young Thug maybe ever, despite his promise to “ride in that pussy like a stroller.”
But I find music that contrasts joy with longing is far more interesting, which is what Jamie and his xx bandmate did with “Loud Places.” Romy’s lyrics of loss and helplessness in the face of growing distance play off Jamie’s playful percussion runs and an Idris Muhammad song that proves the best samples aren’t always the most obscure.
Erykah Badu – Cel U Lar Device
The thing with me and the songs that dominate the conversation in a given year is that in a way, they eclipse anything like a personal best-of list. As far as I’m concerned, these are never what I think the best songs are, they’re the songs I wanted to hear, and the ones I needed to make an effort for. And I didn’t need to make any effort to hear Drake’s “Hotline Bling” (or “Trap Queen” or “Can’t Feel My Face” or “Hello”). You couldn’t go more than five minutes without hearing the latest in the 6 God’s ongoing series of weepy musical pouts about women having the nerve to enjoy themselves without asking Drake if it was okay first.
But Lo-Down Loretta Brown firing off a cover that started as a joke birthday present for a friend, caught fire online, and inspired her to drop the But You Can’t Use My Phone mixtape this year? That’s worth talking about, because the simple fact is that Badu’s quickie Soundcloud toss-offs are often better than some other people’s entire albums.
Dām-Funk – Free
I am, by nature and inclination, a soul of the East Coast. The lazy relaxation of the West has never really suited my disposition (I say this despite numerous West Coast rap acts appearing on this list). While I’ve always admired Dām-Funk as an artist, his music never really connected until he dropped this floaty seven-minute stunner from his instrumental STFU mixtape this year.
I mean, I don’t smoke weed, but sometimes I hear music that makes you wish I did.
Ryan Adams – All You Had to Do Was Stay
Ryan Adams’s full length cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 turned into a pretty divisive project upon its release. Some felt it was an exercise in pointlessness, some thought it undermined Swift’s contributions as songwriter, mansplaining her talents to a demographic she was never speaking to in the first place (ie, mine), some thought it did the opposite, exposing the compositional strength sitting under the metric tonnes of pop sheen she employs throughout her renditions. I lean towards the third.
I’ve gone back and listened to to Swift’s original (when I could find a video or mp3 that slipped online through her iron grip), and it was clearly not for me. But Adams’s version reveals to me the caliber of Swift’s lyricism and melody, wrapped in a package that I personally find more palatable. Obviously, how anyone feels about the project will have a lot to do with how they feel about Adams, but for me, this reminds me of the mellow jangle of Pete Yorn’s musicforthemorningafter, an album I always loved. Sometimes, even I don’t need to overthink it.
Wyles & Simpson – Stormy Skies
It’s no small thing to thaw out the sparse, icy march of this song’s thudding electronic drums and synths, but the warmth of Abigail Wyles’s vocal performance that turns the song into exactly what it describes, beautiful and melancholy at the same time. Word online suggests these two have been grinding together and apart for over five years. With only 888 followers on Twitter, you can tell all your friends you were early when they show up as background music on, I don’t know, How to Get Away With Murder or something.
Kendrick Lamar – You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)
The Game f/ Snoop Dogg, will.i.am and Fergie – LA
I’m pairing these two together because they’re different versions of the same thing. Note that with these two, what we’re really talking about here are the albums and not the songs themselves. The selections here are just my favourites off each one.
I have never checked for The Game. Ever. I know he’s earned his spot as a respectable OG, if not a Hall of Famer or All-Time Great, but he always seemed to blip onto my radar when he was beefing with someone (which was often). Never in a million years would I have expected him to fuck around and make one of my favourite albums of the year, let alone one that made me love a will.i.am track.
As the first waves of bedroom/Soundcloud producers mature and the model of music distribution continues to evolve/plummet into the dirt, The Game put out an album that proved not only that you can still make exceptional music by sampling, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a deep-pocketed conglomerate fronting the clearance budget: this is an album that starts off by pairing the two rappers in question here over a filtered rework of Erykah Badu’s debut single before the horn screech and vocal stab from Gang Starr’s “Step in the Arena“(?!) bubble up to bring in the next song. That probably cost the legal department more than some artists get for their whole album cycle.
People talk about The Documentary 2 like it’s “the album they wish Kendrick had made,” which is a bullshit sentiment that even I uttered after my first handful of listens.
I suspect the people who say that are mostly white folks more accustomed with The Game’s brand of hood tales than with the complicated, confrontational, uncompromising blackness found on To Pimp a Butterfly. The Game put out a masterful album this year, no question (The Documentary 2.5 is a nice piece of work that gets eclipsed by the first volume) but Kendrick’s album is dense, difficult and challenging, with its jazz digressions and his frequent use of different voices and flows to capture different emotional states. It’s not an album you dip in and out of, it’s not suited to the Shuffle Generation and is not here for your good time. It’s a record that tackles the well-worn road of rappers handling the perils of success, viewed through the complicated lens of growing up in Compton, California in the 21st Century, returning to the people whose stories you’ve made a career out of telling, a topic tackled head on in “You Ain’t Gotta Lie.” It’s heady stuff, and Kendrick knows the strong stuff goes down easier wrapped in a coating of thick, syrupy funk.
However you feel about the album, you can’t deny Lamar’s been 2015’s Man of the Year, curating his feature appearances with a savant’s discipline (Jidenna, Taylor Swift, Dr Dre) while keeping his own body of work demanding and unexpected.
The Fourth (?) Annual Pete Rock and CL Smooth Memorial Award
The Jackson Sisters: I Believe in Miracles
Awarded to a song that did not release in the current calendar year that I had no idea existed.
As stated up top, my musical education tends to flow backwards these days, and when you start hanging around on cratedigger social media, you start to recognize and seek out the things that people get the most excited about, which is usually something Disk Union Shinjuku posts up, including a record with a nauseous pink cover and disco jive illustration.
My first reaction when seeing the name was, “Damn, did Rebbie and LaToya put out an album I didn’t know about?” but no, different Jackson Sisters. This one was a five piece vocal group from Detroit by way of Compton, who put out one record in ’76 under the Tiger Lily label, which was allegedly a janky tax shelter that would often press up demo tapes without the artist even knowing it. The album, specifically this song, became fairly popular on the rare groove scene, and rightly so. That break is ridiculous, the horn blasts are pitch perfect, and the ladies fall in perfectly to that bass groove. A notoriously expensive album, I scored a cheap reissue at a record show in Toronto last month, literally at the last table I checked. I handed the dude fifteen bucks and walked out of there stunned.
And that was my year, y’all! I threw the songs I could onto a Spotify Playlist, and I’ll be playing a selection and yammering about them on this week’s edition of the show, which I hope you’ll join me for this and every week when you can.
May our 2016s bring us peace and happiness, and I sincerely thank everyone who’s grabbed a copy of the book, checked out the show, hit me up on social media or email and supported the small things I do to keep my creativity engaged. I can’t promise I’ll try to get more content up here in the next twelve months, but I’ll try to try.