An Abundance of Riches: 2015 in New Music

2015 was the best year for new music in recent memory. The sheer diversity, inventiveness, and sense of discovery evident in the year’s best albums was remarkable. I’ve bought more of these records than I care to admit. Without further ado, let’s get to it.

The Best Album of the Year

Kamasi Washington, The Epic — On this three-disc, three-hour behemoth, Kamasi Washington rises from the status of session musician and underground artist to major jazz figure. Washington is a superb saxophone player who excels at combining different styles of jazz. He shifts easily from melodic improvisation to bop and, at times on the final tracks, free jazz that would make Ornette Coleman proud. At the same time, Washington embeds his sound amid complex orchestrations; the use of a full orchestra and choir gives the album a remarkable sense of scale. This is an epic record with a huge sound. It’s a deeply weird record, to be sure. The orchestrations fall somewhere between Sun Ra and the soundtrack to a 1950s sci-fi movie. Yet if you have a taste for the eccentric or for sonic invention, then you will really enjoy this record. Kamasi Washington blew me away.

The Best Song of the Year: A Tie!

David Bowie, “Blackstar” — The lead single from the upcoming album of the same time, “Blackstar” is a creepy song. It starts out pleasantly, with delayed electric guitar chords reminiscent of Sting’s “Brand New Day.” However, “Blackstar” segues into a rhythm imbalance — there are two separate drum lines, one of which sputters wildly on beats 3 and 4 of each measure. This spasmodic percussion intersects with eerie synthesizer passages, and a multi-tracked Bowie enters this environment, singing about a mysterious villa where a saint’s relics (specifically, the saint’s eyes) are venerated. The drum lines gradually segue together, giving a propulsive undercurrent to the narrator’s creepy adoration of his saint. The middle portion of the song changes perspective at least twice. We hear from an observer reflecting on the day a man was executed. It appears the man came back after he died. Slowly, “Blackstar” reveals itself to be about an inverse resurrection: Instead of a savior returning from the grave, we have the enigmatic Blackstar returning. Bowie plays both the observer and the Blackstar, and he makes both individuals into unsettling figures. One witnesses the apocalypse; the other is bringing it to fruition. The song moves into a reprise of the acolyte’s theme, name-checking that villa again, and ends with a biphonic passage — a synthesized drone underneath Donny McCaslin’s panicked flute — which practically bores into the listener’s brain.

Bowie has said that this song is about ISIS. I’m not sure that it’s literally about the terrorist group, but “Blackstar” certainly conjures an end-of-the-world atmosphere. The song is inventive and spooky throughout. Be warned about the music video, though: The use of the pentagram makes the demonic undercurrents obvious, and the jerky choreography is terrifying. Bowie should have released this opus on Halloween, not in December. God only knows what the rest of the Blackstar album will sound like…

Kamasi Washington feat. Patrice Quinn (vocals), “The Rhythm Changes” — Choral passages abound on The Epic, but “The Rhythm Changes” is the only track where proper lyrics are sung. The pulsing bass line quickly gets under your skin, as do the mantra-like lyrics, which extoll the virtues of mindfulness and self-confidence: “Somehow, no matter what happens, / I’m here.” Washington’s soulful saxophone work anchors the song, but singer Patrice Quinn’s warm vocals supply the emotional core. It might be blasé to declare “The Rhythm Changes” a new jazz standard, but the song feels original and classic at the same time, which is what all great compositions should feel like.

The Other Best Albums of the Year

Seong-Jin Cho, Winner of the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, Warsaw 2015 (Live) — The title is ungainly, but this luminous live record introduces a great new pianist to the classical community. Cho exhibits great dramatic flair when interpreting these iconic Chopin tunes. He rips through the 24 Préludes with gusto and, in the album’s highlight, he performs the most ominous, spooky rendition of Piano Sonata No. 2’s “Marche funèbre” I’ve ever heard. This album is classical music at its best. 

José Gonzalez, Vestiges & Claws — After several years focusing on his rock band, Junip, Gonzalez returns with a gorgeous solo folk album. Performing all instruments himself, with the exception of Swedish flutist Anna Melander on “The Forest,” Gonzalez supplies an album of mystical folk music, taking on grand themes like time, destiny, and enlightenment. Gonzalez is a remarkable melodic guitarist, as well as a skilled percussionist, and in his willingness to mix the sacred into pop forms he evokes the great George Harrison. That is the highest compliment I can give Gonzalez.

Leon Bridges, Coming Home — Leon Bridges resurrects 1960s soul and Gospel in an irony-free manner. Bridges is a decent guitarist, but he’s an even better singer and writer, creating a retro aesthetic that feels genuine, not a pose. The man can croon; songs like “Smooth Sailin’” and “Flowers” are seductive as hell. Yet Bridges is not a one-note singer. He sings tenderly on the Gospel track “River,” pleading for redemption, and recalls his mother with haltering, partially spoken lyrics on “Lisa Sawyer.” The best word to describe Bridges, above all else, is fun.

Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow is My Turn — Rhiannon Giddens rose to prominence on last year’s Lost on the River with the New Basement Tapes, and here, once again produced by T-Bone Burnett, she takes a solo bow. Giddens’s operatic training gives her a technical pedigree beyond that of most pop singers. Here, she looks to the past, interpreting old soul, folk, and Americana tracks with gorgeous new arrangements and passionate vocal work. Giddens also shows her talent as a songwriter with the album’s moving closer, “Angel City.” If anything, I wish Giddens included more original songs in the vein of “Angel City,” instead of sticking to covers. She has proven that she can perform America’s sonic history in an extraordinary manner. Now I want to hear what she has to say.

Death Cab for Cutie, Kintsugi The division between “alternative” and “regular” music always struck me as a false dichotomy. “Alternative” too often seems like a catchall for creative or multi-genre works that small-minded critics can’t wrap their heads around. Death Cab for Cutie’s new album, Kintsugi, delivers a killing blow to the “alternative” classification. Yes, it’s been deemed alternative, since Death Cab for Cutie honed its reputation in the alternative scene with introspective lyrics and off-kilter instrumentation. At the same time, this album has all the fiery guitar work and sonic melodrama associated with the best of rock and roll. Is it alternative, or is it mainstream? I say, who cares? This was the best rock album I heard all year. Lead singer Ben Gibbard’s quiet, self-reflective lyrics reminded me that too many male rock singers don’t let themselves sound vulnerable. Gibbard bares his soul, and the risk pays off. Kintsugi is a masterpiece. 

Amy Helm, Didn’t It Rain — The daughter of The Band’s Levon Helm, Amy Helm has performed under the radar for many years now, but here she steps into the spotlight on her first country album. Helm performs eight original compositions alongside four covers of traditional American songs. She has a fine alto voice and controls her tone well, shifting from gentle phrasing, as on “Deep Water,” to bombastic declarations, as on “Roll The Stone.” The album’s highlight is “Rescue Me,” a song that somehow makes a plea for help sound joyful. The album errs slightly with “Sky’s Falling,” which follows the chord progression of “Rescue Me” to such a degree that it seems like a reductive recycling, but overall Didn’t It Rain is an impressive debut.

Lord Huron, Strange Trails — This folk-rock album came with one of the best promotional efforts I’ve seen in a while — fourteen photos, one for each song, evoking old-fashioned sights like museum dioramas, B-movie photography, and 1960s album covers. The album lived up to the hype. Huron auteur Ben Schneider revealed in an interview for Paste Magazine that he envisioned the songs as dramatizations of an imaginary author’s stories. Furthermore, Schneider and his collaborators approached these songs as the soundtrack to a movie not yet made, even writing a short comic book to expand on the album’s content. Listening to Strange Trails, you might not pick up on all of this literary experimentation, but you can definitely hear the soundtrack influence, since variations on a single melody supply three songs — “Love Like Ghosts,” “Meet Me in the Woods,” and “The Night We Met.” You can also hear in the words the attention to characterization that Schneider sought to convey. Songs like “Fool for Love” and “The World Ender” are character studies; “Louisa” is an ode to a woman of the singer’s dreams. I don’t know if we will ever see a film enacting a story around these songs, but if a Lord Huron film does happen, I hope (a) that it’s a musical, and (b) that whoever performs the score matches the excellent musicianship of Lord Huron’s members. This album has great repeat-listening value.

John Williams; the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, feat. Robert Williams (bassoon), Williams: The Five Sacred Trees: Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra — This sterling recording of John Williams’s ode to nature is a delightful classical album. Like many of Williams’s film soundtracks, “The Five Sacred Trees” features sprightly melodic lines and warm tone colors. Unlike on those soundtracks, Williams does not have to write leitmotifs associated with particular characters. He can show more subtle arrangements than might be heard in, say, the next Star Wars movie. Slatkin and the DSO also recorded John Williams’s Cello Concerto this year, but “The Five Sacred Trees” is the better of the two albums, and arguably the better composition.

Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color — The second-best rock album of the year, behind Kintsugi, was this sophomore effort from Alabama Shakes. It defies easy categorization, but psychedelic blues-rock is a decent stab at its blend of sounds. The standout figure here is 27-year-old Brittany Howard, the lead guitarist and singer. With her thundering, amplified electric guitar chords and bombastic voice (she sings with such force into the microphone that the sounds clips a few times), Howard is a spiritual successor to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Howard’s falsetto and distorted words give Prince a run for his money, too. Although “Gimme All Your Love” is the big single from Sound & Color, I prefer “Dunes” and “Future People.” Played start to finish, though, Sound & Color is an enjoyable, weird, and sexy album.

Keith Richards, Crosseyed Heart — The master emerges from his comfortable semi-retirement with a strong album of original music, although he throws in a nice cover of “Goodnight Irene” for good measure. Richards grew up listening to African American blues. Unlike many white musicians who copied the sound of black blues, Richards imbued everything that went with the blues — the regretful yet aggressive mindset, the use of rough vocals to convey raw emotion, the technical aspects of slide guitar. When Richards plays the blues, he’s not imitating the blues masters. He’s become one of them. Keith Richards is one of the last great twentieth-century bluesmen, of any race. It’s a privilege to hear him record new work, especially when songs like “Amnesia,” an ode to drug-induced confusion (possibly inspired by his fall from a coconut tree), are so much fun.

The Helio Sequence, The Helio Sequence — This indie rock duo, comprised of Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel, has performed for years now, but this album was my introduction to their work. Apparently they composed most of it in a single-day challenge. Summers and Weikel’s electronic sound and double-octave tenor/baritone vocals recall Caveman’s self-titled 2013 album, but the Helio men perform with a greater sense of momentum. Overall, The Helio Sequence sounds like the best kind of garage band music — DIY, but expansive and fun. The best track is probably the propulsive “Stoic Resemblance,” followed closely by “Deuces.”

Hot Chip, Why Make Sense — Hot Chip continues to fill the void that LCD Soundsystem left in the genre of sensitive, quirky dance music (if such an eccentric genre can be said to exist). Like Soundsystem, Hot Chip owes a lot in its off-kilter worldview and polyrhythmic grooves to the Talking Heads. If anything, Hot Chip is continuing the Heads’ legacy, getting us to boogie while listening to songs with random topics and bizarre lyrics that often don’t make sense. Indeed, the title is a clear reference to the Heads: Instead of Stop Making Sense, why make sense at all? Wacky stuff, and also great fun. I can imagine no other band titling a love song “White Wine and Fried Chicken,” or singing an ode to sneakers (“Huarache Lights”). Why Make Sense is the best album of the year to dance to.

Matt Haimovitz, “Orbit”: Music for Solo Cello (1945–2014) — Haimovitz supplies three-plus hours of experimental solo cello music from the last century. The dissonant sounds of Elliott Carter and the minimalist bars of Philip Glass appear, but so do arrangements of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner.” Haimovitz’s technical skills are astounding. His ability to play runs of double- and triple-stopped notes for minutes at a time, as well as his ability to play shrieking harmonic notes, reveal great stamina and a strong ear. The music is not exactly fun; this is avant-garde stuff. After an hour of listening, I had to turn it off and step away for a while. But Haimovtiz is a hell of a cellist, that’s for sure.

Kronos Quartet, playing the works of Terry Riley, Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector — This 75-minute celebration of composer Terry Riley is a showcase for Riley’s deeply eccentric and spiritual music, as well as the incomparable musicianship of past and present Kronos members David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, Sunny Yang, Joan Jeanrenaud, and Jennifer Culp. The standout opus is “Cadenza on the Night Plain,” a spare work that riffs on traditional fiddle music, the likes of which might be heard in Appalachia or the Old West (or, at least, Riley’s imagined version of those places). Listeners familiar with Johnny Greenwood’s landmark string soundtrack for There Will Be Blood will find parallels in Riley’s “Cadenza.”

Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell — The saddest record the gifted Stevens has recorded, Carrie & Lowell is a beautiful example of lo-fi music, but it will make you want to slit your wrists. Has Stevens ever sung a more devastating track than “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” in which a strung-out junkie despairs of existence? OK, to be honest, “Casimir Pulaski Day” on Illinoise was bleak, but Carrie & Lowell is a tough listen.

Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly — I have never been able to wrap my head around rap music, but even a naysayer like me can’t deny the brilliance of Kendrick Lamar. To Pimp A Butterfly is an outstanding album, on which Lamar tosses out new ideas and quotes audio samples with the speed of a machine gun. While “I” is probably the best track overall, “King Kunta” is the one that made me a Lamar fan. “King Kunta” reveals Lamar’s skill at creating characters through his verse (yes, Lamar is a poet). The narrator of “Kunta” is a boisterous young African American man, declaring over and over that he derives power from “the yams” — a tri-fold allusion to his African heritage, self-confidence (“I am”), and the Hebrew God (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, “I Am That I Am”). At the same time, the narrator is cognizant enough of his own flaws that he admits the “yams” are what also got alpha-males Richard Pryor and Bill Clinton in trouble. “King Kunta” left me dazzled and wanting for the first time in my life to listen to an entire rap album. Lamar is one to watch going forward.

Anderson East, Delilah — Anderson East rockets into heartland rock with an old-time vocal growl and a willingness to blend Gospel, Motown, and funk influences. The brass section in “Satisfy Me” is bombastic, as in the best recordings of James Brown. “Devil in Me” is a sinner’s hymn, portraying a character’s weakness for women in aching verse and a soaring organ part. (Truthfully, the live version East did for Spotify, transposed to an anthemic higher key, is the better rendition of “Devil in Me,” but the album version is fine, too.) Delilah is not as distinctive a first record as, say, Leon Bridges’s Coming Home, for the heartland scene is crowded with male vocalists who sound similar to East. Still, East acquits himself well, delivering fun Southern music with melodramatic vocals.

Buena Vista Social Club, Buena Vista Social Club: Lost and Found — This supergroup of Cuban musicians only recorded one proper album, 1997’s Buena Vista Social Club, although its members recorded plenty on their own and in small groups, and the surviving members still tour today. The release of more BVSC music is cause for fans of Latin music to celebrate. We can rejoice in the sounds of the late Ibrahim Ferrer, Cachaíto, Compay Segundo, Manuel Galbán, and Rubén González once more.

John Adams; the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, Adams: Absolute Jest & Grand Pianola Music — This album pairs a recent Adams composition, Absolute Jest, with a classic Adams work, Grand Pianola Music. The SF Symphony, led by the great Tilson Thomas, plays throughout, but the St. Lawrence String Quartet joins Jest, while Synergy Vocals and pianists Orli Shaham & Marc-André Hamelin round out Pianola. The two pieces are quite different. Pianola is a minimalist work anchored by voice and piano, but it shows Adams’s love of colorful dynamics and continuing variations. Unlike Philip Glass’s minimalist pieces, which sometimes feel stuck in place, Adams’s Pianola feels like it is going somewhere. Jest eschews minimalism for romantic string melodies. Adams the experimenter has tricks up his sleeve, of course. In prime postmodern style, he throws in atonal, free jazz, and dissonant passages, and he plays with wild tempi that would make a nineteenth-century romantic composer’s head spin. And that’s the fun of Absolute Jest: It’s romantic music played gonzo-style.

Honorable Mentions

Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott, Songs from the Arc of Life — Ma has recorded several of these songs elsewhere, so to a degree Arc of Life is a freshly recorded greatest-hits album. With that said, like Bob Marley’s Legend, Ma’s Arc of Life is a compilation that, in its contents and song order, works well as a cohesive album. The songs do follow an emotional arc from youth to passionate young adulthood to reflective old age. Kathryn Stott is a wonderful accompanist, and superlatives fail to convey Ma’s genius, as always.

Ryan Adams, 1989 — I genuinely enjoyed Adams’s song-by-song tribute to the 2015 Taylor Swift album. It’s a total stunt, to be sure, designed to make Adams (and Swift) a pile of money, but the Adams 1989 works. To be honest, I preferred Adams’s rendition to Swift’s. The mechanized pop of Swift’s 1989 masked some of the humanity in the lyrics Swift wrote with Max Martin, Ryan Tedder, Jack Antonoff, Shellback, and Imogen Heap. I name all of these writers as a reminder that Swift does not work in a vacuum. She is a prodigy, but works firmly in the studio system. Instead of Swift’s computers and sampled drums, Adams opts for multi-tracked guitars and forceful human percussion. His searing opening to “Wildest Dreams” evokes the work of the Byrds, but played on twenty-first-century instruments. He turns “Style” into a disco strut, and his “Shake It Off” is something quieter, more internalized than Swift’s brassy cheerleader rendition (which is a guilty pleasure of mine, I must admit). At the same time, Adams validates Swift’s genuine talent. His jaw-dropping piano rendition of “This Love,” the only 1989 track written solely by Swift, affirms the pathos in her lyrics. The same goes for Adams’s performance of “Wildest Dreams,” which Adams tweaks by changing the pronouns to add gender ambiguity. All told, I’m not comfortable putting a copy of another 2015 album on my best albums list, but I salute the irony-free approach Ryan Adams took toward this material.

The Other Best Songs of the Year

St. Vincent, “Teenage Talk” — Without question, Annie Clark (St. Vincent) wrote the most moving song of the year. Her ode to teenage friendships, somehow torn asunder, will speak to everyone who has conflicted feelings about their youth (which means basically everyone alive). Clark also criticizes individuals who cannot stop living in the past: “I don’t think the past is better, better / Just ‘cause it’s cased in glass, / Protecting us from our now and later.” In other words, value and reflect on your past, but don’t stay there. 

Johannes Moser, with the Prague Philharmonia (PFK), conducted by Jakob Hrůša, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104, B. 191: I. Allegro, from Dvořák & Lalo: Cello Concertos — Johannes Moser is a terrific cellist, performing this titanic cello work as if it is no challenge at all (hear those trills in the last two minutes!). Behind Moser, Hrůša conducts a luminous Prague Philharmonia, whose members draw out notes in Dvořák’s orchestrations that I’ve never heard before.

José Gonzalez, “Leaf Off / The Cave” — This song convinced me that José Gonzalez is one of the smartest songwriters alive. Gonzalez combines imagery from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden. He asks an unseen person to “take the leaf off your mouth,” referring to the way that Adam and Eve covered themselves when they were corrupted by knowledge. By uncovering, Gonzalez suggests that we return to a primordial state of grace. At the same time, he lauds the importance of genuine wisdom: “Let reason guide you,” so that the “light may lead you out” of Plato’s metaphorical cave. To Gonzalez, knowing about the world need not preclude grace. In its rejection of original sin, its harmonization of Platonic wisdom with Biblical origins, and its willingness to say that you can be naïve but also wise, “Leaf Off / The Cave” is unlike any other song from this year. It is a philosophical hymn to self-actualization.

José Gonzalez feat. Anna Melander, “The Forest” — Like many of Gonzalez’s song-poems, this song’s true meaning is up for debate. The central line is haunting, however: “Why didn’t I see / The forest on fire behind the trees?” Ms. Melander’s bass flute performance is ethereal. In perfect counterpoint to Gonzalez’s repetitive guitar work, Melander evokes primordial sounds, recalling traditional Japanese flute work. 

Kurt Vile, “Pretty Pimpin’” — This standout track from Vile’s new album, b’lieve i’m goin’ down…, portrays a young man suffering a depersonalization episode. The unsettling psychological undercurrents become apparent as the narrator repeats himself, loses track of time, and starts to speak of “He” instead of “I.” A repeating guitar phrase — two eighth notes followed by a triplet, all of which is repeated twice — acts as an anchor, pulling us in while simultaneously creating a feeling of circular motion. We are trapped with the narrator in a scary cycle.

Vile co-founded The War on Drugs with Adam Granduciel. The Grammys ignored “Pretty Pimpin’,” just as TWOD’s Lost in the Dream inexplicably received no nominations last year. The Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences needs to start paying attention to Vile and TWOD. These men from Philadelphia are resurrecting the guitar-driven classic rock style while pushing rock lyrical content into rarely explored psychological terrain.

Misterwives, “Our Own House” — This charming funk song is an ode to creating a family with whomever you are with. The balance of brass over a minimalist, disco-like guitar line (a guitar line that nods to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” to be clear) makes for a peppy tone. “Our Own House” is a great song to play in your car and sing along with.

Giorgio Moroder feat. Sia, “Déjà vu” — Building off his cameo on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder returns with his first new album in over twenty years. He has stayed abreast of the developments in EDM, so that this track, featuring a killer vocal performance by Sia, feels like contemporary dance music and not a 1970s throwback. Although the whole album was good, not great, this song showed that Moroder remains a talented producer.

Will Butler, “Anna” and “Witness — Arcade Fire member Will Butler dropped a brief album this year, and these two tracks were the highlights. “Anna” is a bizarre love song that recalls, of all thinks, Mark Mothersbaugh’s “Ping Island / Lightning Strike Rescue Op” from The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou soundtrack. “Witness” is a bombastic preacher’s exhortation. Both songs show that Butler has great potential as a solo artist, in addition to working with Canada’s biggest rock band.

Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, feat. Sara Niemietz, “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” — Scott Bradlee and Postmodern Jukebox continued their wide touring and prolific recording this year, releasing five albums of modern pop hits arranged in a traditional jazz style. This cover of the Talking Heads classic, sung by the incomparable Sara Niemietz, is probably the best thing the Jukebox recorded all year. The staccato keyboard parts from the Heads’ original are redistributed to brass, reeds, and piano, and given looser rhythms straight out of swing music. At the same time, Niemietz captures the delirious love-struck nature of David Byrne’s lyrics, but delivers them with passion far exceeding Byrne’s vocal delivery.

Anna B. Savage, “1” NPR alerted me to Ms. Savage’s debut EP and to this song in particular. Singing in a deep contralto voice and playing a delicate guitar part reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, Savage sings of the sacrifices she made for the sake of preserving herself. The song hinges on a wonderfully surprising transition: After progressing in a subdued manner, the song explodes to life for a final passage, with Savage launching into a higher alto register, while Bon Iver-style backing voices circle around her melody. It’s beautiful. 

Nordic Affect, “Clockworking,” composed by María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir — Nordic Affect is a chamber ensemble composed of four Icelandic women, Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, Gudrún Hrund Hardardóttir, Hanna Loftsdottír, and Gudrún Óskarsdóttir, and one Australian, Georgia Browne. This lead single from their 2015 album of the same name moves in an elliptical, looping manner, evoking the precise motions of an old clock. The arrangement is spare — just a handful of instrument lines, playing a lot of half- and whole notes — but the intersecting parts still produce a wonderful polyphonic sound. It’s stripped-down music for northern wilderness.

Mark Ronson, feat. Bruno Mars, Mystikal, Jeff Bhasker et. al., “Uptown Funk,” “Feel Right, and “In Case of Fire” from Uptown Special — Ronson’s Uptown Special was the musical equivalent of a block party — that is, a block party with Michael Chabon lyrics and a 1970s funk fixation. The best tracks on the album were Mars and Ronson’s inescapable “Uptown Funk;” “Feel Right,” Mystikal’s delirious rap about feeling good and buying Snoopy’s doghouse, among other things; and “In Case of Fire,” featuring a stellar vocal performance by Jeff Bhasker. Come to the party, folks.

Future Islands, “Haunted By You” — Somehow I missed Future Islands’ 2014 album, Singles, which is a shame, because in retrospect it was one of the best albums of last year. Future Islands returned this year with the two-song EP, The Chase. Although the thumping bassline of “The Chase” should inspire lively club remixes, the better track was the B-side, “Haunted By You,” the best love song of the year. While it’s unclear whether lead singer Samuel T. Herring is addressing the person he loves or Life personified, Herring delivers the lyrics with his typical gusto. (Herring is one of the most exciting front men in rock and roll today, combining dramatic vocals with animalistic choreography.)

Lucius, “Born Again Teen” — This raucous ode to teenage sexual discovery is blasphemous, hilarious, and a ton of fun. Check out the accompanying music video, which skewers Los Angeles hipster culture without mercy.

Public Service Broadcasting, “Sputnik” — This simple electronic track intersperses vintage broadcasts about the Sputnik satellite with a synthesizer part that grows relentlessly in volume and power. In structure, instrumentation, and dynamics, “Sputnik” makes a good companion piece with Cuts’ “Bunsen Burner, the unsettling finale from the 2015 sci-fi film Ex Machina.

Ne-Yo, with Shanice Williams, David Alan Grier, Elijah Kelley, and ensemble, “What Would I Do If I Could Feel,” from The Wiz LIVE! Soundtrack — Ne-Yo is a successful hip-hop artist, to be sure, but this song from NBC’s live telecast of The Wiz is a revelation because it takes Ne-Yo out of his usual, digitized hip-hop soundscapes. Singing live and with no apparent sonic effects, Ne-Yo shows what an incredible range he has. The song, in which the Tin Man laments his inability to feel, might even make you tear up.

Lily & Madeleine, “Hourglass” — Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz are similar to the Haim sisters in that both groups rely on gorgeous vocal harmonies in their music. This stately, wistful piano-driven song, backed up by simple string arrangements, laments the passage of time — “Hourglass” is an appropriate song for a rainy day. The record shows that Lily & Madeleine have great promise as acoustic pop musicians, just as Haim might be the future of rock and roll.

Tame Impala and Haim, “Cause I’m A Man — This powerful song depicts a man refusing to think through his problems, instead falling back on his gender identity as an excuse for his misbehavior. Performed by Kevin Parker (“Tame Impala”), the song is a lament. Performed by the Haim sisters in a fascinating cover, which transposes the song higher and alters the chorus from a minor key to major, the song becomes a defiant battle cry. It is a credit to Parker’s songwriting that the song can work well with such different sonic environments and vocal approaches.

David Gilmour, “Today” — On Rattle That Lock, Gilmour continues the impressive streak of classic rock that he began with last year’s Pink Floyd coda, The Endless River. This incisive track from Lock opens like a hymn and ends as a stadium-size, mid-tempo rock anthem. Like Keith Richards, Gilmour proves that you don’t have to be a young man to rock.

Disappointments

Mumford & Sons’ new album was not good at all.

Janelle Monae finally scored a major hit with “Yoga,” but in its embrace of hip-hop and trap music, the song is less distinctive than the soul music for which Monae developed a cult following.

Another year has gone by without a new Rolling Stones album, even though Keith Richards gave us his first solo album in twenty-three years.

Best Soundtracks

The most ambitious, and best, soundtrack of the year was classical composer Max Richter’s ethereal recording for Testament of Youth. Richter balances his postmodern love of drones and white noise with searing string parts that recall the modernist works Stravinsky wrote circa World War One.

Operating in a more traditional vein were Carter Burwell’s very British chamber score for Mr. Holmes and Thomas Newman’s Russian-influenced score for Bridge of Spies, which culminates in the seventeen-minute knockout of “Glienicke Bridge” and “Homecoming.”

Michael Giacchino supplied a robust, unabashedly romantic score for Tomorrowland, which in its coloring evokes the Golden Age of science fiction.

Tom Holkenborg’s bombastic soundtrack for Mad Max: Fury Road evokes a manic video game, but it has moments of great beauty, as evidenced by the stirring finale, “Let Them Up.”

While much of Room lacks music, Stephen Rennicks wrote a killer finale called “New End,” which triggers the requisite catharsis after two hours of kidnapping and psychological agony.

Michael Brook’s quiet soundtrack for Brooklyn is not my favorite soundtrack for casual listening, but it hits all the right notes in its cinematic context, and “Goodbye Eilis” is a beautiful closer. Brook also includes a fine Irish folk song, “Casadh an Tsúgáin,” sung with integrity and stoicism by Iarla ó Lionáird.

As for original songs, Sam Smith wrote a suitably subdued theme, “Writing’s on the Wall,” for Spectre, which felt like a proper resolution to the Daniel Craig series of James Bond movies. David Lang’s “Simple Song #3,” sung by soprano Sumi Jo for the Youth soundtrack, is the rare film piece that is an operatic art song. Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” was the best thing about Fifty Shades of Grey. Brian Wilson wrote a bouncy new song, “One King of Love,” for the dramatization of his life, Love & Mercy. Cuts sent us off to have robot-induced nightmares with Ex Machina’s “Bunsen Burner.”


And that’s a wrap! See you in 2016!

Cover Image:
Cover art for Kamasi Washington’s “The Epic.” Source: http://bit.ly/1OxbiSC. 

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