At the time of David Bowie’s death, the poll ballot had been up on the site for a couple of weeks. Many of you had already voted; a few people even used the miscellaneous section to register disappointment with Blackstar. Once Bowie was with us no longer, that stopped — although I did get a couple of expressions of bewilderment from younger voters about the ensuing wall-to-wall coverage. I was a latecomer to the cult of Bowie: I first encountered him while he was singing “China Girl” into a thin white microphone. This was not my favorite song or my favorite video; even at the time, I found it kinda exploitative. Later I would learn how many of the songs that were favorites were total Bowie rehashes, and this knowledge sent me to the record store to grab the back catalog. I discovered that David Bowie was an absolute master of the architecture of pop songwriting — one of the best to ever do it — and an excellent singer, too. But my emotional relationship with Bowie never went much beyond that. I did not develop the powerful feelings of identification and fellow-outsider recognition that many of you wrote so eloquently about elsewhere. He made music that I admired, and danced to, but, with the exception of “Life On Mars,” nothing I took into my heart.
But a little more than two weeks after the death of Bowie, we lost another rock star. This one shared with David Bowie both an interest in science-fiction and a dim, dystopic worldview. But while Bowie was fascinated and inspired by the questions sci-fi asked about the mutable nature of identity, Paul Kantner was drawn instead to its sociopolitical implications. I haven’t seen too many panegyrics for Kantner online, so if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to take a moment to explain to you what Jefferson Airplane meant to me:
There was a social history course offered to sophomores in my high school. It was spring 1987; I didn’t take it. I had no interest whatsoever in the 1960s — I’d never heard of Haight-Ashbury or the Monterey Pop Festival, or the Summer of Love. I didn’t watch the news, I watched MTV, and MTV meant Debbie Gibson and Glass Tiger and “Livin’ On A Prayer.” If I was very lucky, I might catch a Suzanne Vega video. Randee of the Redwoods was my idea of what a hippie was like. Woodstock was something for grownups to reminisce about, only none of the grownups in the staid automobile suburb where I lived would have ever admitted to attending.
Then somebody sent a copy of Jefferson Airplane’s 2400 Fulton Street collection to the shopping mall record store where I worked. And I did something that I never did before or after, and, to this day, I still don’t know where I got the nerve: I stuck the two cassettes in my bookbag and dashed out.
Would Grace Slick have approved of my petty theft? Probably not. By then, she was trying to hammer out a living on mainstream radio, singing with Starship in a connection I wouldn’t make until months after my initial introduction to the Airplane. The entertainment industry runs on property rights; nobody gets any money without them. But 2400 Fulton Street told me that all my private property was target for my enemies. It seemed a reasonable outlook. It still does.
I could trace the beginning of my musical education to the moment I pressed play on my cassette player in ’87 and heard the Airplane for the first time. That would be accurate, but I’m afraid that it would shortchange the band’s power. Midway through my first listen to that collection, the walls of the high school and the shopping mall and my suburban bedroom started shaking. All my life I’d been taught that black was black, white was white, sky was blue, and that was that. Paul Kantner suggested that if I was a cloud, my sky would be green. I got the point.
Remember that I knew nothing of the Airplane’s history: the first tentative flights through the San Francisco underground, the unlikely chart successes in 1966, the controversies, the collaborations, the counterculture reputation, the riots, the exhaustion, the psychedelics. The only drug I was doing at the time was Cap’n Crunch. With no context whatsoever, Jefferson Airplane spoke directly to me, trapped in the 1980s, just as they once spoke to thousands liberated in the ’60s and the ’70s. Open your mind, they said, use your imagination, do things that don’t have a name yet. The proper response to abusive authority is laughter, because that’s the one thing they can’t take, or take away from you. And if all of that makes you an outlaw in the eyes of America, well, there’s plenty of harmony on the other side of that line.
They became my favorite band. Though I considered myself surrounded by people whose ideas and values opposed mine, the Airplane was my proof that there once existed people who felt the way I did — and my promise that it could happen again. When Kantner and his bandmates raised their voices together, it sounded to me like an entire nation was singing. That nation certainly wasn’t the one I was living in. But it didn’t sound undiscoverable, either. It sounded like it was right there beyond a thin barrier; a wild world, a playful world, a world where people of all kinds could be together without losing their individual personalities. Paul Kantner’s music was, essentially, an entreaty to go out and find it — and if you couldn’t find it, go ahead and make it. Because he was generous, he even gave us a cryptic recipe, right there on his best-ever song, an anarchist’s pamphlet set to glorious music. “We must begin here and now,” he sings with his mates, “a new continent of earth and fire.” No matter what’s happened since 1967, I still believe it’s possible.
Okay, I’m gonna hit you with some plurality favorites in the miscellaneous categories, and then I’ll turn the floor over to You the Voter:
- Best singing: Laura Marling. Erykah Badu and Father John Misty got some love, too.
- Best rapping: Kendrick Lamar by a landslide.
- Best lyrics: Joanna Newsom. Bet you guys like Thomas Pynchon, too, huh?
- Best album title: Earl Sweatshirt‘s antisocial I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.
- Best album cover: No plurality at all.
- Biggest disappointment: The Decemberists and Panda Bear.
- Nicest surprise: New Order minus Peter Hook is still pretty damn good. Carly Rae Jepsen, too. I’m listening to her right now.
- Thing you don’t know, but you know you should: A few votes here for Vince Staples.
- Hoary old bastard who should spare us all and retire: Some more votes for the Boss, but I’m sorry to say Damon Albarn takes the category.
- Young upstart who should be send down to the minors for more seasoning: Ed Sheeran. A nice handful of votes for Tobias Jesso, too. Ben Krieger voted for Chelsea Clinton, and… yeah, that’s a really good answer.
- Most overrated: Grimes and Drake. Only one vote for Kendrick, by the way, and my location app suggests that the call might be coming from inside this very house. Poll runner-up Courtney Barnett got more blowback than I expected her to.
- Album that felt most like an obligation to get through: Titus Andronicus.
- Thing that wore out the quickest: Chvrches by a nose over Metric.
- Artist you respect, but don’t like: Bjork.
- Worst song of the year: “BB Talk,” Miley Cyrus. Some scattered loathing for David Guetta songs, too.
- Album that turned out to be a hell of a lot better than you initially thought it was: Four votes here for Drake‘s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and four more for Honeymoon by Lana Del Rey. Nothing decisive, but that’s good enough for me.
Trends for 2016
Zach Lipez: Filling out Conde Nast paperwork.
Jay Braun: Recording music and playing it back again.
Brad Krumholz: A return to ragamuffin in mainstream hip-hop.
Hilary Jane Englert: Songs sung from the perspective of animals.
Katherine Furman: The robots are coming!
Mike Cimicata: Bieberification.
Brian Block: Computers overthrowing the producers and making their own soundscape records. Oddly, most of their albums will be full of vocals, but most of the vocals will sound like either Miss Krabappel from the Simpsons, the elementary school teacher from Charlie Brown, or the economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Different theories will be advanced on what this indicates, but none of them will be flattering.
Thomas J. Snow: Hyperanxiety masquerading as nonchalance.
Jason Paul: Dance music producers Diplo and Skrillex went pop and proved to be really good at it, keeping eccentricity. Trap is mainstream and proved it could make hits in Fetty Wap.
Jim Testa: A reawakening of politically-aware pop, rock, and rap.
Andrea Weiss: Musicians finally smashing rock’s sexism and homophobia.
Ben Krieger: Sorry, I’m all out of clever. It’s an election year, so I’m sure some artist will annoy me.
Steven Matrick: Pink Floyd.
Matt Houser: Overlord. [We’ll see, Matt.]
George Pasles: Finishing albums.
Best shows you saw in 2015
Steven Matrick: Laura Marling at a church during South By Southwest.
Stephen Mejias: Thurston Moore Band at Monty Hall, JC.
Terrance Pryor: Between The Buried and Me @ Irving Plaza.
Allison Tuzo: Jason Isbell @ Prospect Park.
Dillon D.: Jason Isbell.
Steven Slagg: Tenement.
George Pasles: Jupiter Boys, anywhere.
Pat Pierson: Marjorie Fair (Evan Slamka) solo acoustic @ Mexicali Live, Teaneck, NJ, Hamell On Trial at Sarah Street Grill, Stroudsburg PA (Dec).
Brad Krumholz: Eleanor Friedberger @ Pianos.
Jason Paul: Shilpa Ray album release @ Rough Trade guest James Chance.
Morrissey @ Madison Square Garden.
Brian Block: Rasputina, with Daniel Knox opening, at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. Rasputina because Melora Creager is a delightfully droll frontwoman, improvising some of her jokes in direct response to crowd suggestions while never losing her pseudo-upper-class-Brit cool. A new album she’d made all by herself for cd-only release was worked smoothly into the trio format, and old band songs had been overhauled to accommodate keyboards and beat-boxing along with the electric cellos. Knox, meanwhile, has the cranky self-effacing drunk-tavern-piano thing going on; nothing novel, but fun.
Jim Testa: I spent 90% of my weekends in 2015 working at Aviv, so I didn’t see a lot of other shows and I don’t think I attended one “concert” per se at a large venue. But… best live bands I saw at Aviv: Ronnie Hunt,
Deerpeople, PWR BTTM, Donovan Wolfington, Kal Marks.
David Nagler: FKA twigs presents Congregata @ The Hangar, Neneh Cherry @ The Highline Ballroom, Stevie Wonder @ Barclays Center, Mekons @ Bowery Ballroom.
Mike Cimicata: Brian Wilson at The State Theater, Future Islands at Terminal 5, Stevie Wonder at Prudential Center, My Morning Jacket at Beacon Theatre, The Original Pinettes Brass Band at Bullet’s Sports Bar, New Orleans.
Bob Makin: Experiment 34.
Zach Lipez: The Mekons @ Bowery Ballroom.
Paula Carino: Even Twice & Fireking @ Freddy’s 1/17/15.
Matt Houser: Weird Al @ Mann Music Center, FFS @ Terminal 5, Death by Unga Bunga @ Cakeshop.
Andrea Weiss: R. Ring @ Jonny Brednda’s Philadelphia PA, Dar Williams/Jill Sobule @ World Cafe Philadelphia, PA.
Katherine Furman: The stage show of Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore was amazeballs!
Jonathan Andrew: Nada Surf @ Webster Hall, Manhattan, 11/14/15, Hum @ Webster Hall, Manhattan, 8/13/15 Ben Nichols & Rick Steff (from Lucero) @ The Shop, Brooklyn, 6/12/15.
Anna Howe: Belle & Sebastian @ Radio City.
Hilary Jane Englert: Belle & Sebastian @ Radio City.
Oliver Lyons: Mark Burgess (Chameleons Vox) @ The Middle East, Cambridge, MA.
Ben Krieger: Rush’s farewell tour @ MSG. [snif.]
Random comments and various wiseguy category answers
George Pasles: Best video — Peaches, “Rub”. It’s porn, in the way ’50s rock started. It’s the last gasp of Big Mama Thonrton left in music.
Jer Fairall: Kendrick Lamar was not at all overrated in 2015. To Pimp a Butterfly is one for the ages. My #1 choice [FIDLAR’s Too], I suppose, hints at both my contrarian streak (rank an album at #1 that everyone else in the world is touting? What?!) and my self-consciousness about loving something I am unqualified to understand. Granted, a white 37-year-old doctoral candidate claiming to identify with a band of booze-‘n-drug-addled twenty-something punks is probably no less laughable than identifying with the current voice of Black America, but it is less offensive.
Ben Krieger: Kendrick Lamar is King Of The World this year. And that’s outside of the fact that it was a ho-hum music year for me; in terms of quality, I could fit at least 5 of my favorite records since 2012 between To Pimp A Butterfly and everything else I enjoyed in 2015. I don’t think there’s been as deserved a consensus on a #1 record since Elephant, and To Pimp A Butterfly is much better.
Steven Slagg: We expect our black laureates to save the world as troubled, brilliant, tireless crusaders/saints (Kendrick, Chance, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Brittany Howard), but we only really ask our white laureates to be clever, self-aware, and charming (Father John Misty, Courtney Barnett, Destroyer). Seems like the arrangement’s unfair to everybody.
Ben Krieger: Whitest album – The Sleeping Tapes by Jeff Bridges. But hey, I got into it, go figure.
Thomas J. Snow: Drum-geeks among us have to appreciate the fact that the hi-hat patterns on the Drake album could have been lifted straight from George Lawrence Stone’s “Stick Control for the Snare Drummer” (see page 14, “Short Rolls and Triplets.”). Rudiments: they’ll never let you down.
Jonathan Andrew: Adele sold 15 million copies worldwide in 10 weeks on the strength of her songcraft, her extremely down-to-earth (and thus likable) persona, and that effing voice. She’s not an Aretha- or Whitney-level virtuoso, but there is something incredibly relatable about the way she puts her songs across. It is a joy to hear.
Thomas J. Snow: Not that I was camping out in front of Sam Goody waiting for 25 to come out, but I kind of expected a little better from Adele. “Rolling in the Deep” had a winning vocal performance and some thoughtful production; “The Other Side” is not just bad; it’s uninteresting and bad.
Brian Block: Tunde Olaniran doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page yet; that’s serious oversight territory, because his Transgressor could easily have been the massive hit it deserves to be. Olaniran is an excellent singer and good rapper (reputedly a fine choreographer as well), and his album’s seeming influences are multiracial mega-sellers: Kanye’s Yeezus and U2’s Achtung Baby, Beyonce’s 4 and Lady Gaga’s Art Pop and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine. He puts interesting new spins on their ideas and seems like a thoroughly decent, pleasant person. He’s young; perhaps the world will catch up soon.
George Pasles: Will still be making good albums in 2025 — United Pressing.
Brian Block: Best lyrics — Joanna Newsom, obviously. Or I say obviously; according to my best of 2012 ballot, where I discussed Ian (Aesop Rock) Bavitz, I was still hesitant about brilliant lyrics best approached using Wikipedia and the collective annotations at genius.com. Now it feels entirely normal to me to learn new things about birds, 19th century politicians, and 26th century interplanetary wars in the cause of approaching an album. Maybe now I’m ready to enjoy Shakespeare? I’ve had a bit of leftover sympathy for Couch Flambeau’s lyric (“I hate Shakespeare! He’s boring and he’s too hard to read! I wish he was dead!… He is? Good”), but of course he’s dead. That’s what happens to folks. Newsom almost summarized one of her key themes in Divers’s last song title, but — distracted by another interesting idea — she misspelled “Time, as a Merciless Bastard”.
Thomas J. Snow: Allow me a moment of blasphemy, but I found it almost impossible to listen to Divers from start to finish. As thematically and technically impressive as she is, Joanna Newsom seems to have mislaid her groove. The fussy arrangements, with every little penny whistle and bassoon and tasteful tambourine shake in the mix like tchotchkes in your grandmother’s china cabinet, are simply hard to live with for a full long-player. I wish I could blame Van Dyke Parks or Dick van Dyke or Andy van Slyke or whoever that guy was who produced Ys, but, looking at the liner notes, it looks like Joanna took the reins on Divers herself, so…ah wait! Steve Albini was involved in this project! Let’s blame him.
Zach Lipez: I still love pop-punk. Feels great.
Oliver Lyons: Album of the Year — The Apartments – No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal. The first proper album from The Apartments (who were always just Peter Milton Walsh anyway) in almost 20 years. Of course it was crowdfunded. In The Apartments long history of would have beens, should have beens, a stable label is the least of its problems. Regardless, with 20 years to prepare, Peter Milton Walsh has had plenty of time to pick the best of what he’s written over the past two decades and it shows. The songs on No Song… can compete with anything going today. You think the guy who wrote “Mr. Somewhere” is here for the play play? No. Singing about the death of a relationship or the death of his son, PMW can sew heartache to melody like almost no one else. No Song…combined with “hip” “”Brooklyn”” label Captured Tracks reissuing The Apartments first album, I’m sure The Apartments won’t stay secret much longer.
Oliver Lyons: Album of the Year Runner-up: The Unlovables / Dirt Bike Annie – Reunion Show – A Split LP from two of NY’s best early 2000’s pop-punk bands and they don’t miss a beat. Besides my hair and these bands, there’s not much else I miss about that time.
Matt Houser: My Kids (age 4 + 6) liked: Caspar Babypants, Plastic Bertrand “Ça plane pour moi”, The B-52s “Rock Lobster”, Basement Jaxx “Take Me Back to Your House”, Chipmunk Punk album.
Terrence Pryor: 2016 needs more obscure bands reuniting than well known acts. Also, someone needs to do a concept album about sloths because those cute creatures deserve some love.
Zach Lipez: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Loving the abhorrent, the racist, the dishonest, until, say, three other people call them out…then everybody jumps on. If it took you till 2016 to realize Tao Lin or Kil Sun Moon were fucked as humans, i don’t know what to tell you.
Steven Slagg: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Female country artists fighting tooth and nail for success, brilliantly walking the cultural tightrope. Male country artists coasting on bland tastefulness.
Andrea Weiss: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — More musicians coming out — more power to them.
Hilary Jane Englert: Prevailing theme(s) or trend(s) of 2015 — Use of the beach as a figure for a less difficult, troubled life, ruminations on the relationship between the mind and the body, abbreviated song titles.
Oliver Lyons: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Bands still hate vowels.
Mike Cimicata: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Blinded by science.
George Pasles: 2015 was an ominous year for too many friends and for the world in general. Hard to watch. My year was largely nondescript, spent listening to podcasts or WFMU. I spent my nights with rats in the basement of Saltlands. I started and completed ZERO songs for the first year since 1990. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
Steven Slagg: Six queer artists I paid close attention to — Courtney Barnett is casually out and tremendously popular and her gayness doesn’t factor much into the narrative around her; Shamir is also very popular, identifies as genderqueer, SOUNDS fashionably queer, while Le1f, Ezra Furman, and Angel Haze deal directly with all the troubled, knotty parts of queer experience in a way that strikes me as more interesting and in-your-face but less palatable (though I like Shamir too); and then Sam Gleaves, a traditional country/bluegrass singer who writes about gay coal miners and country boys, and who splits the difference between some really fascinating storytelling and sort of patronizing pride exercises that feel about 15 years behind their time.
Jonathan Andrew: I really shouldn’t weigh in since I haven’t given her a fair shake, but I can’t believe the enjoyment many seem to get from listening to Courtney Barnett. I find it far more charming when my pop singers can sing.
Brian Block: I’m torn between being happy for Courtney Barnett, because she’s smart and amusing and I enjoyed her songs “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser” in 2014; and being puzzled because I don’t think putting 11 of her songs in a row, with almost one combined melody and a musical style centered around “the part of a Bonnie Raitt song where they’re just trying to pad everything out to radio length”, does her any favors at all. Apparently I’m outnumbered.
Brian Block: I hope your poll is much more loyal to Belle & Sebastian than the Pazz/ Jop poll was [no worries there, ever, Brian], because Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is, for me personally, their breakthrough album. I’m not saying it’s objectively better than your poll-winner If You’re Feeling Sinister — they’ve always written well — but I’ve rarely liked my music wispy or pastel, and my liking for B&S has generally risen during the moments when they’ve asserted pop and dance smarts. For me Girls in Peacetime was like an entire album imagined outward from “I’m a Cuckoo”, “Stay Loose”, and “the Blues are Still Blue”, sometimes even converted into ‘80s synth-pop…. which, by being straightforwardly fun for me to listen to, also helped me attend to and enjoy their lyrics more than ever. Obviously, the rest of the world is entitled to dislike polish, jauntiness, and synth-pop; but with Carly Rae Jepsen and Grimes near the top of the polls, I don’t think that’s the issue. It feels more as if the smart kids will be loved if they know their place, but aren’t welcome at the dance. I like to dance, and I like to bloviate smart-kid style, so I’m not super-delighted if those are the rules.
Ben Krieger: Most sympathetic perspective — Fenton Lawless on the song ‘Chicago, Chicago.’ Like many local artists who spew their dregs all over Facebook, Lawless is best when he’s sitting behind his guitar. ‘Chicago, Chicago’s “what about black on black crime” perspective is not one that I agree with, but I get that—in what I feel is a misdirected way—he means well. For a full albums worth of songs about what drives many of Trump’s supporters, you need to go back to Angaleena Presley’s American Middle Class record. All I’ll say here is that the Republicans aren’t the only ones to blame for the cultivation of frustrated white Middle America; liberals fucked up big time. Randy Newman was trying to warn us about this all the way back in 1974 with Good Old Boys: there is no cause righteous enough to be excused from the necessity of respectful dialogue with people who don’t seem to agree with you. I don’t blame oppressed and underprivileged groups for this. I blame what I can only describe as the New Yorker crowd, who have the responsibility of creating a dialogue bridge between the disenfranchised and the more-privileged groups who don’t quite understand what all the anger is about. If you’re the type of white, middle class liberal who is fond of using the term “flyover country;” if you think that anyone who votes Republican must be an idiot; if you memed something condescending over that fucking asinine image of Kermit sipping tea; if you snickered and jabbed at mainstream country music, then you failed. I don’t think that the internet is necessarily set up to communicate peacefully with others; lord knows I’ve left enough Facebook threads foaming at the mouth. But when I finally got around to listening to “Chicago, Chicago,” I was reminded that behind many a person with whom you don’t agree with is someone who, in their own way, wants the world to be a better place, and is worth having a sit-down conversation with. (https://soundcloud.com/fenton-lawless/chicago-chicago)
Jim Testa: Pop music really let me down in 2015. Where was the “Shake It Off,” the “Call Me Maybe,” the “Best Song Ever?” Everything sounded safe, tired, boring. I am tried of Nickelodeon child actors being groomed into pop stars – Ariana, Demi, Selena, Miley, go home. I am tired of Taylor Swift surrounding herself with female pop stars and supermodels and branding it as “feminism.” I am tired of a hip-hop community that’s still more consumed with bling than Black Lives Matter. I am sick of an alternative rock community that doesn’t seem to realize there’s a crucial presidential election on the horizon.
Katherine Furman: Worst song of the year — All the manufactured indie songs with big choruses. I don’t belong to you, you are not my sweetheart. Stop trying to play me!
Stephen Mejias: I’m somewhat troubled by how similar my list is to Pitchfork’s. Ah well. Whatever.
Jonathan Andrew: Most alienating perspective — “Only by returning to vinyl (which has doubled in price since the early 2000s when one could purchase Oh, Inverted World! for $7.99 at Vintage Vinyl) can we combat the irresistible, instant-gratification, ADD-addled experience of listening via streaming services!” I was raised in the Church of Townshend, Springsteeen, and Waters. Whatever medium I am using, I listen to albums in sequence, all the way through, and evaluate them according to classic rock and pop orthodoxy: the album is the unit of measure by which we judge artistic greatness. It is still possible, denizens of 2016. You just need to exercise impulse control. Now, to Spotify to stream The Division Bell yet again (which is way better than its critical reputation would suggest).
Jer Fairall: Most welcome surprise — how much I’ve come to love and depend on Spotify now that I live in an area that offers high speed internet.
Ben Krieger: I made a pact with the Devil this year and signed up for an Apple Music subscription. I don’t know what else to do; I’ll gladly buy anything that appeals to me, but I couldn’t figure out another way to afford listening to a lot of music that, after a spin or two, I realized I had no desire to ever hear again. I figured at least this way the artist got royalties of some sort, as opposed to if I’d streamed the songs off of YouTube.
Oliver Lyons: Everyone who slept on the Mini-Disc is in for a rude awakening.
Matthew Sirinides: You’re doing the Lorde’s work.