Elle King got famous in 2015 for having the rollicking slut-pride anthem of the year. Then she found out, as many before her have done, that sudden fame exacerbates one’s worst impulses to the thousandth degree. King went on the rookie pop star roller-coaster of self-destruction: heavy drinking, burned bridges, self-recrimination, another bender, rinse, repeat, rehab. It took the steam out of her career, but it did give her material for a more mature second album. Facing down demons has always been a songwriter’s right of passage, and Elle King is working to ascend the pinnacles of blue-eyed soul. She may not be up there with Joplin and Winehouse, and if she wants to continue being alive, she shouldn’t aspire to it. But she did make a really good confessional rock album, and hopefully she’ll be able to mine more from her journey.
It’s time to take stock, yet again, of the year past and – yep! – it was a shitty one. I don’t know where we go from here, but I suspect it’s nowhere nice. In the meantime though, we can enjoy the one upside to witnessing the fall of civilization in real time: the myriad ways all that angst and turmoil can be fueled into art.
1. Negative Capability – Marianne Faithfull
In a world burning with senseless violence and Orwellian horror, what we really need is to hear from one of the Summer of Love’s last survivors. The survivor’s place, it seems, is a lonely and sorrowful one. Faithfull laments the passing of old friends, she laments the fear that haunts our time, she admits that her own faith in love is deeply shaken. Did she really need a third re-recording of As Tears Go By? Yes, as the song’s melancholy deepens with the singer’s voice. Did the pagan feminist anthem Witches’ Song need to a revisit? If it means throwing Nick Cave into the mix, absolutely yes.
2. Always Ascending – Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand proves, as they have been for years, that all anyone really needs is killer hooks, killer riffs and great stovepipe trousers. FF are rock dandies who could have been early-60’s mods, 80’s New Romantics or 90’s Cool Britannia lads – their brand of crunchy rock and swaggering attitude is that timeless, whether or not they choose to add synthesizer arpeggios or just lean into the three-guitar format. When you’re handsome and clever, the whole world’s an afterparty.
3. God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty
For a change, FJM is actually one of the less depressing entries on the list. His last album, as much as I loved it, was far from bright. He must have gotten tired of gazing into the abyss; this time he’s looking at his own celebrity lifestyle, and finding it absurd and amusing. His humor has always been one of his most appealing qualities, and it’s nice to more focus on that, rather than the total failure of all mankind. The vibe wouldn’t be out of place on the record charts in 1972, and that’s high praise.
4. American Utopia – David Byrne
How did David Byrne, long one of rock’s great neurotics, become a self-appointed champion of “reasons to be cheerful”? He set himself the challenge of writing only optimistic songs, making it the theme of his last tour and of this album. That may feel counterintuitive in these trying times, but Byrne, when he’s not being acerbic, has always known just how much joy a good pop song can incite. Cheerful doesn’t have to be boring or earnest, either – in these hands it’s gratifyingly bonkers, from the wordplay to the herky-jerky tempo changes (so reminiscent of his famous dance moves.)
5. Tell Me How You Really Feel – Courtney Barnett
Like me, you were probably waiting eagerly to see how Courtney Barnett, the grandmaster of turning the most intimate and mundane of everyday things into clever and insightful pop poetry, would develop as an artist now that she’s world famous. I was expecting a lot of songs about hotels and airports. Barnett, however, is several levels above that. She’s ready to tackle the whole fucking world and the constant battle of living in it as a woman. From walking in the park to appearing on television, being a female person is a constant confrontation with danger, and Barnett is taking none the bullshit that comes with the territory.
6. High as Hope – Florence + the Machine
I fell in love with Florence Welch for her baroque aesthetic. Her lyrics evoked mythology classic and pagan, her productions shied away from no harp solo. But more than anything else, it was always about the voice. This time, she sheds most of the theatrics and focuses on the very real. Even the most magical witch person struggles with bouts of self loathing, faces heartbreak and leans on her own role models for inspiration. Those are the personal revelations Flo is ready to make, turning her voice and gift for drama towards the intimate. Every artist has to strip down to the roots of what made them become an artist in the first place.
7. I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life – Tune-Yards
If you were listening to a lot of indie radio in 2014, you’ve probably heard Water Fountain by Tune-Yards, and you may have dismissed it as a novelty song. However, Tune-Yards is no novelty act, but an avant-garde musical project. Their new record is, indeed, boundary-pushing and just plain weird, in the best possible way. It’s also inspired by the state of the world we’re in, so file it under the ever-growing and trending banner of angry feminist protest art.
8. Little Dark Age – MGMT
The world needs MGMT. They’ve had some creative ups and downs since their moment of peak success in 2008 (my god, has it really been so long?) It’s hard living down a big hit, especially when you never set out to be hitmakers in the first place, but it seems like MGMT have made their identity with or without oceans of hype. They just make really catchy, sometimes trippy, sometimes snarky, always recognizable tunes. Eccentricity should always be this much fun.
9. Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt – Moby
Moby is another artist who outlived his moment at the top of the Zeitgeist, who kept working and evolving slightly below the big-hitmaker radar. He was never the pop star type, anyway. His music reflects his mild-mannered persona: just a regular guy who loves animals, cares about issues and thinks about his place in the world. And composes music that ranges from ambient to uptempo, music that’s been equally melodic and melancholic lately, but ultimately positive in spirit.
10. Dirty Computer – Janelle Monae
This is the year Janelle Monae went from acclaimed outsider to for-real superstar. This is one of those albums that will be remembered as a definitive part of its cultural moment. Not just a good record that fans enjoy, but an important record that contributed to the conversation far beyond the confines of one fandom. It’s been a year when artists like Monae – women, women of color, queer women of color, et al. – who used to be relegated to the dusty ghetto of ‘special interests’ swung into the center of the conversation and announced that their voices would be heard whether the gatekeepers liked it or not. And then it turned out that everyone did like it, and can we have more of this, please?
11. Shake the Spirit – Elle King
In 2015 Elle King’s Exes and Ohs was the gleefully naughty bad girl anthem of the year. Then she disappeared. Was she going to be yet another promising young artist lost in record label purgatory or burned to death by the insane strobe lights of fame? Almost. She lived the shooting star trajectory that should take decades – hype, hits, rock bottom, rehab, comeback – in just a few years. Being a bad girl is tough, it turns out, and Elle King is here to tell you just how much. It’s the insecurity, the desire to be liked at war with the urge to rebel, the judging eyes of others, the thirst for more thrills, the wild ups and downs of it all that make the tough girl who she is. Elle King is the bottle-blonde, zaftig floozy with the heart of gold that every girl who’s ever been slut-shamed can relate to.
12. Isolation – Kali Uchis
Kali Uchis is the surprise big pop breakout of the year. She is the standout in a dense field of young pop divas with obscurely exotic names: Rita Ora, Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande, Sky Ferreira, etc. etc. Kali Uchis can outsing each and every one of them. Her voice is way better than any mere pop star’s needs to be, and her music, while unmistakably heady pop sugar, draws on her Colombian background with touches of salsa and Reggaeton, and also harks back to the girl groups of Motown and the breezy sound of 70’s soft rock, among a myriad other influences. It is so refreshing to hear a pop record that’s this fun, smart and diverse. Is this the new Shakira?
13. Castles – Lissie
Lissie has somehow, inexplicably, been flying under the radar, although she’s been making records since 2010. In that time she has consistently delivered smart songwriting, powerful vocals and a down-to-earth sensibility. Once again, she doesn’t disappoint. She knows how to write a good pop hook, but she also leans into 70’s-style country rock influences. Her vocals can be folksy or tinged with gospel. Her approach to the commonplace topics of love and heartache is levelheaded and honest, revealing emotion without resorting to sentimental cliche – as befits an artist who chooses real life over glamorous artifice.
14. Remain in Light – Angelique Kidjo
When Talking Heads incorporated African beats into their post-punk rock music on their 1980 album of the same name, it was many Americans’ first introduction to what we know know as ‘world music’. When Angelique Kidjo emigrated from Benin to Paris in 1983, she heard her first Talking Heads album and felt instant recognition. She understood the unbroken musical lineage that connected the folk music of Africa to modern-day rock and roll, and grasped that Western audiences were open and hungry to rediscover rock’s African roots. Now, so many years later, she pays homage to that culture-bridging moment and the record that made her feel that the European world was open to her and her music. And it’s far from being an exercise in nostalgia: Kidjo makes every song relevant in entirely new ways. When Kidjo sings “All I want is to breathe” it’s a whole new message with a whole new context.
Part Two. The Songs.
A little extra space for those whose albums didn’t quite make the top cut, or those who didn’t actually release an album. The songs I listened to. A lot. This year.
1. ★ – David Bowie
Nothing casts a longer shadow Blackstar. Released in November, it inspired the kind of fanfare only new stirrings by David Bowie could attract. Of course we didn’t know that it was meant as the artist’s swan song, a parting gift, a characteristically cryptic goodbye. We just thought it was mighty epic. In a season of electrosynth, it’s almost painful and wrong to receive something of this caliber, as a goodbye no less. We’re not worthy.
2. Ex’s & Oh’s – Elle King
The naughtiest, sexiest pop confection. So inescapable and so catchy, you almost didn’t notice how subversive it was. Elle King is one of a new breed of smart young pop stars, armed with the message that empowerment is fun.
3. On the Regular – Shamir
This Las Vegas-based new talent combines a soulful countertenor, a love for candy colored disco beats and a playful humor to create what critics have called ‘bubblegum hip hop’. If anyone is going to write this generation’s I Will Survive, it’s gonna be this kid. He’s not quite there yet, but he’s zooming along nicely.
4. New Americana – Halsey
Yeah, it’s a self-conscious, Balenciaga-referencing, portrait-of-my-generation anthem that wouldn’t exist without Royals. But Halsey has greater ambitions than riding Lorde’s coattails for a minute on the pop charts. Her debut was a concept album about an apocalyptic near future of her own invention. She has things to say.
5. Tongues – Joywave
This has actually been stuck in my head since the fall of 2014, and I was waiting to see if Joywave’s debut album lived up to the delirium. It does. This is the best of today’s electric indie pop wave.
6. The Party Line – Belle & Sebastian
Didn’t Belle and Sebastian used to be known for making sleepy folk music? They’ve been at it long enough to have been a punchline in High Fidelity. But this… This you can dance to. I guess this is a band evolving with the times. Tired of being called twee, they take to electropop.
7. Black Sun – Death Cab For Cutie
Welcome to Ben Gibbard’s big divorce album. It would make a bigger impact if every Death Cab record didn’t sound like a breakup album. The romantic mope is what these guys do best.
8. Lifted Up (1985) – Passion Pit
Passion Pit continues the trend for catchy, New Wave influenced indie pop. There’s been a lot of it lately, mostly of the one hit and out variety, and Passion Pit, with a total of three albums, is looking more and more like a keeper.
9. Leave a Trace – Chvrches
This could be a long lost Cyndi Lauper song, it’s that 80’s. And that’s great. Will Lauren Mayberry grow up to be a similarly iconic figure? Too early to tell, but I’ve been watching Chvrches since their debut a few years ago, and it would be nice if I could continue.
10. 10,000 Emerald Pools – BØRNS
Ok, so maybe Garrett Borns, with his pretentious stage name and sensitive-guy hair, is pure hipster bait. Maybe I’m a sucker for that stuff. Maybe this is a pretty great song.
11. Paranoia – Max Frost
Max Frost is now famous enough to merit his own Wikipedia page, but it’s only a paragraph long. So he’s still got a ways to go before he reaches real fame, but it’s when not if, and when he does, you heard it here first.
12. Painted – MS MR
Just when it seemed like Ms Mr wasn’t going to live up to the promise of Hurricane… This isn’t quite as great, but it’s nice to have them back, and it would be nice to have more fanfare about it.
13. American Oxygen – Rihanna
Rihanna is hardly the first person to use a video montage of iconic images superimposed on an American flag to illustrate a basic political point. We get it, MLK would be aghast at the violence and injustice still being dished out upon a mostly black underclass, and the American Dream is big bust for most of us, etc. (And some viewers might find it objectionable that the singer’s nipples are clearly visible throughout.) But I want to take this as a sign that Rih is beginning to mature into a more serious-minded artist. She has the talent and charisma to become the kind of artist people pay attention to when she has something important to say.
14. Blank Space – Father John Misty
Oh, hey, here’s a novelty song. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. You’ll curse the heavens for taking Lou Reed, and you’ll thank Glob that at least we have Father John Misty. Oh, and maybe, just maybe, possibly, Taylor Swift is not entirely a vortex on inanity in human form.