Consensus worries me. When I was seven, a strong consensus developed at summer day camp that I was funny-looking. Nobody wanted to sit with me. This consensus opinion may well have been accurate; current conditions around the orbit of my face suggest to me that it was. But you can see how I might be drawn to dissenters and their alternate theories.
By the time I was a college-aged record collector and amateur critic, I was enchanted by the aesthetic of opposition, and I wasn’t the only one. There were the many, who listened uncritically to whatever played on the radio and played beach volleyball in the beautiful sunshine as they did, and then there were those like me for whom the music was crucial to our lives and required dedication, and who would spend hours ferreting around in dusty shops for discs unsung. Only a few recognized our favorites, and this was okay — as pluralist culture fragmented, it made sense to celebrate the infinite permutations of taste. By the time 2015 happened, there’d be no overlap between the records I would love and anybody else’s collection. We’d each have our own personal artist to call ours. The popular music we tolerate would, in due time, be replaced by unpopular music we adored.
Boy howdy has this not happened. There is no shortage of unpopular music to explore or subcultures to experience, but with a few exceptions, modern critics do not tend to make the case for the rare, unloved, and weirdly personal. Instead, we’ve turned our attention from the art to the culture, which in practice means engaging with the records that reach the largest audiences and broadcast universal or sociopolitical messages. I am not sure we really trust ourselves to write about taste anymore, which is messy and subjective; instead, modern reviewers too often use records as a pretext to engage with various movements and -isms, and opinion tends to coalesce around a handful of widely distributed artifacts that provide for the listener some readily accessible talking points. For instance, there were an estimated million zillion albums released in 2015, every one of which was a potential favorite. But nearly everybody with a podium agreed that the very best one was made by a Christian rapper from the culturally significant town of Compton, California. The press said so, the polls said so, even the President of the United States said so — and unless they want a meltdown on their hands that’ll make the protests over the whiteout at the Oscars look like a game of patty-cake by comparison, the Grammy Awards will soon say so, too.
Don’t look here for an alternate pick. The 71 voters of Critics Poll 26 also chose To Pimp A Butterfly by a comfortable margin over Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Kendrick Lamar’s third album was named more frequently than any other, and topped more ballots, too. It was a solid win for a confrontational, uncompromising rapper on a poll that has not always embraced hip-hop.
I, too, loved To Pimp A Butterfly. I didn’t have it at the top of my list, but there was no album I thought about more frequently. I further admit that when I did think about it, it wasn’t always the outstanding musicianship or the virtuoso rapping that was on my mind: more often, I thought about the relationship between Kendrick’s poetry and the Baltimore riots, or the Cleveland police department, or the Cosby case, or the centrality of the black church in the civil rights movement. Just like you, I was impressed by Kendrick’s challenge — he set out to make a nation-sized record that elicited a thoughtful response from everybody who heard it, and he got what he wanted. To Pimp A Butterfly entered the culture, and insofar as it was judged as a cultural artifact, we deemed it laudable. The Black Lives Matters protesters who integrated the chorus to “Alright” into their chants understood that the power of pop was worth harnessing. Those of us who love popular music had to be heartened by this demonstration of its capacity to inspire.
Yet inspiration is only a small piece of what pop music is about, and although Katy Perry and Sara Bareilles might tell you differently, it’s not the desire for self-affirmation that compels most listeners to play and play and replay a tune. I do sometimes wonder whether any of us who make criticism our business were ever really able to hear To Pimp A Butterfly through the noise, or if we were too swept up in the narrative concerning the album’s cultural importance to judge it fairly. No anarchist collective recorded and distributed this record. Its ascendance was engineered by Kendrick, Top Dawg Entertainment, and their many friends and supporters in the same mainstream music industry that gave us Meghan Trainor and “Cake By The Beach”. Patrick Stickles’ dismissal of Kendrick as a “shoe salesman” was crass, but not entirely inaccurate — marketing is one of the rapper’s many talents, and one of the things he successfully sells (in addition to shoes) is Significance. Or to put it another way: To Pimp A Butterfly was released on March 15, 2015. By April Fool’s Day, it had already been anointed the year’s best, and you knew and I knew that it was going to win this poll and every other poll under the sun. Instant unanimity ought to make you queasy, regardless of the album’s quality.
“Impact,” a horrible term that’s been ported over from military applications and weapons demonstrations, is used all too often when discussing works of art. In 2015, an album was quite frequently judged by the size of its impact, as if the listening public was a placid lake, and the record was a boulder-like projectile slung into it by a catapult or other violent siege-breaking implement, and the task of the critic was the measurement of the splash. No album caused a bigger wave than To Pimp A Butterfly did. But the height of the crest is really only relevant in those Internet dick-slinging contests decided by numbers of followers or retweets or blog posts or dittos. As I type this, the embodiment of arithmetic thinking stands before the electorate in Iowa, where he has made the case, over and over, that he is worthy because of his poll numbers and his opponents are losers because people don’t like them as much. The critic needs to stand against that kind of thing, and make the harder, trickier case that 1.) merit is ultimately subjective, and not contingent on the ratification of the crowd, and 2.) works of art should, nonetheless, be put in context with other works and evaluated on the basis of how well they deliver the experiences they promise.
All records are examinations of the times and places in which they’re made, and it’s possible to argue that the political situation in America has deteriorated so badly that it’s irresponsible to write a review that does not also double as cultural commentary. I get that. Then again, our world is already lousy with punditry, and I would like something better for you, music critic, than that. The reason that cultural commentary is always so uninviting is because the culture itself is pretty dull: it’s exactly what you’d expect it to be given the advanced state of capitalism we’re living through. (That’s also what makes it easy to do.) Music criticism has been, at its best, an escape from all of that, but as the standardization of taste continues, it may turn into simple balls-and-strikes umpiring: Album of the Year and Song of the Summer determined somewhere else, possibly by strategy and generally by algorithm, and the critic left to pick up the pieces, report about the size and velocity of the associated trending topic, and invited to rhapsodize about What it All Means.
This year, we were, in a way, lucky. To Pimp A Butterfly really is a great album, and it deserves the accolades it’s gotten. If a rapper really does feel the need to deliver a State of the Union address (and, honestly, I hope they’re not going to start making a practice of it), this is how to do one. But nobody could deny that there was real pressure — some of it accompanied by a moral charge — on music listeners to appreciate and celebrate the Kendrick Lamar album. Much as we critics love to believe we stand up for the underdog, nobody was impervious to the centrifuge of 2015 conventional wisdom. Unpopular music never stood a chance.
- 1. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly (347)
- 2. Courtney Barnett — Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (269)
- 3. Belle & Sebastian — Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance (250)
- 4. Tame Impala — Currents (205)
- 5. Laura Marling — Short Movie (203)
Kendrick is such a talented rapper and writer that nobody ever seems to notice what a total cornball he is. The seductress named “Lucy” who is secretly Lucifer? Television-movie corn. How about the song the President likes — the one where the homeless man he disrespects turns out to be God in disguise? That’s the sort of corny plot twist you’d expect to get on a Kenny Chesney album. What about the Al TV-style interview beyond the grave with Tupac, the spoken-word “Dick Ain’t Free” interlude that feels lifted from Spike Lee’s freewheeling, imaginary jazz clubs, the fight that breaks out in the audience during “i” that the rapper pacifies with powerful words of unity and inspiration? All of this works, of course, but what it demonstrates (at least to me) is that Kendrick is far more of a showbiz kid than a revolutionary, steeped in the tropes of the entertainment industry and well aware of the tasty applications of American cheese. Nothing new there: Good Kid, m.A.A.d City was loaded with melodrama, some of it as emotionally manipulative as anything you’d find on the Lifetime Channel. I don’t fault him for a minute, mind you. Like prior conceptualist crowd-pleasers — Michael Jackson, Roger Waters, Barack Obama — Kendrick Lamar realized early that it isn’t enough to demonstrate excellence in craft and make a strong, smart argument: for the mass audience to eat it up, some hefty helpings of corn and cheese need to be ladled on top. Strip To Pimp A Butterfly of its cheesy elements and you’re left with something like Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 (number 11 on this poll) — another masterpiece of Southern Californian hip-hop, albeit one that didn’t score anybody’s social movement, and one that sold a mere fraction of Kendrick’s total.
For another example of the power of cheese, consider Currents, the third full-length by Tame Impala. On Lonerism, Kevin Parker added a little modern pop sparkle to his ’60s-psych swirly-eyed throwback sound, and won the 2012 poll. Nobody was beating Kendrick in 2015, but Currents, the follow-up, got plenty of love from critics while charting a new direction for the act: Parker dove into the vat of Velveeta headfirst. Parker traded the guitar workouts tailored to hit the sweet spot of the psych subculture for an overload of Wang Chung synthesizer and rubbery basslines reminiscent of ’80s cheese-R&B. “Maybe fake’s what I like,” he sang on the last song, and has been rewarded for his faith in the artificial with a Rihanna cover and a seat in the canoe riding the rapids of the pop mainstream.
- 6. Carly Rae Jepsen — E-mo-tion (188)
- 7. Joanna Newsom — Divers (174)
- 8. Hop Along — Painted Shut (159)
- 9. Sleater-Kinney — No Cities To Love (152)
- 9. Father John Misty — I Love You, Honeybear (152)
See, we critics like Rihanna now — or, rather, we won’t be caught dead suggesting that Rihanna’s approval might be indicative of an ideological problem. (Leave that to Max Bemis.) Once upon a time it would have been scandalous in certain circles for, say, D. Boon to be caught hanging with Jody Watley, but since there’s no real underground anymore and no standard of value but popularity, it’s assumed that everybody with a guitar simply wants as much exposure as he can get. These days everybody is under the same umbrella ella, and even weirdos who really ought to be interested in nonconformity applaud loudly when “perfect pop songs” are correctly identified as such by the great unwashed, and are spun at bars and become “songs of the summer” and what have you. This is why critics tore their hair out over the conundrum of Carly Rae Jepsen: E-mo-tion checked all the boxes of solid formula art, so why oh why wasn’t it selling? For awhile, everybody with a platform and a will to compose thinkpieces became Jepsen’s business councilor, alternately chastising the marketplace, Scooter Brown, the star’s producers, and the star herself for failing to achieve the financial returns commensurate with such a thrilling capitulation to formula. I know I did. I dedicated a scandalous amount of thought to Jepsen’s portfolio — it monopolized my thinking on several long bike rides — and I still couldn’t figure out her problem. What did she do wrong, America? Was it the sweater? Because I think the sweater is sensational. E-mo-tion is designed to fit right in the sweet spot between Heartthrob and 1989, which means that digital cash registers filled with Bitcoin ought to be spewing whatever cryptocurrency you crazy kids are spending these days. Granted, Jepsen does not have the microphone presence or airtight authority of Taylor Swift, but in all other ways her disc measures up well to its models.
My great fear is that Jepsen has been damaged by her reluctance to sing bland self-actualization anthems, preferring instead to concentrate on songs about how horny she is. Back in the good old days, this is exactly what we asked of pop stars — shut up about your interiority and, instead, point at your genitals and howl animalistically. Basically, that was pop music in the ’80s, which suited me fine. Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end. But end they did, and at the end, we got Rachel Platten singing inspirationally about taking back her life from whatever it is that’s dogging it. And this, not that pretty business over there, is what rides high on the charts. My hypothesis is that all the Adderall and legal doobage has withered the private parts of a generation, and people are no longer sensitive to Carly Rae Jepsen singing tell me that you want me that I’m all that/I will be there I will be your friend. In 1985, that would have worked. If you were at those bar mitzvahs too, you know it.
Further proof that pop ’15 was inundated by a wave of cheese: even Joanna Newsom was susceptible. Last we heard from her, she complained about “dulling and dumbing in the service of the heart”; now, she is peddling a bunch of winsome hooey about the time-transcendent power of love. Hey, I’m a hippie, too. I hope she’s right.
- 11. Vince Staples — Summertime ’06 (151)
- 12. Drake — If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (149)
- 13. Lana Del Rey — Honeymoon (141)
- 14. Grimes — Art Angels (131)
- 15. Ezra Furman — Perpetual Motion People (130)
- 15. Chvrches — Every Open Eye (130)
To Pimp A Butterfly was the year’s landmark album, but to really understand 2015, you have to listen to the celebrated Art Angels. Grimes, in case you don’t know her, is a Canadian singer-songwriter who achieved notoriety and critical acclaim in 2012 with a mildly experimental electropop album called Visions. While it was clear even then that she had mainstream aspirations, she hadn’t quite misplaced her youthful ambivalence about all things mersh; for instance, rather than the requisite big ole butt, there’s a cartoon skull on the album cover. At some point between Visions and the release of Art Angels, the artist shook off her hesitancy, and decided that if Lady Gaga was going to run off and join the cast of Planet of the Apes, or whatever the hell she’s gone and done with herself, Grimes would just go ahead and become Lady Gaga. Art Angels, which Grimes produced herself, is 100% cheap-seats pop in the Gaga freaks-but-not-too-freaky style, complete with streamlined dancefloor numbers, periodic stabs at cartoonish aggression, and occasional independent-woman sloganeering. In other words, it’s the exact album Gaga should have made after The Fame Monster, or, at any rate, the album her accountants would have liked her to have made. Unfortunately, on her very best day, Grimes, whose vocal resemblance to Alvin the Chipmunk has been noted, cannot begin to approximate Lady Gaga’s singing. The result is an album that treads the line between ingratiating and irritating: a set of critically approved “perfect pop songs” made by a pseudoalternative artist who really has no business singing pop. Mind you, I am not bothered at all by the flood of hyperbole that this album rode in on, and I’m even happy to contribute to it. Every era has its figures who are hailed by the press as supergeniuses for no discernible reason. Grimes just happens to be one of ours. In ’93, it would have been a grueling, goatee-having dude who sang YAHHAHAUUUGHAR about his Oedipal rage. In ’93, a trip to munchkinland such as Art Angels would have been a fucking delight.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in twee little Glasgow, a not-dissimilar act made a not-dissimilar move. Apparently Chvrches is a stadium rock band now. Not what I expected from Lauren “Bro” Mayberry, but hey, she and her bros have identified an opportunity and they’re going after it while they’re fetching. “Empty Threat” is practically a Paramore song, which makes me wonder why they didn’t cave and employ a real drummer who could have made the song what it wants to be. The self-affirmation anthems range from summer festival-blithe (“bury it and rise above”) to downright meatheaded (“we will take the best parts of ourselves and make them gold,” eww.) By the way, I hope Vince Clarke is getting some residuals for the massive “Just Can’t Get Enough” bite in the middle of the best song on Every Open Eye. He’d probably settle for a hug.
In 2015, there’s really no such thing as a sellout: for there to be, there’d have to be a counterculture with elements that could be raided and packaged for sale on the mass market. In the absence of one, it’s natural for these guys to shoot for the top — if the only place they’re ever going to experience any kind of artist’s community is by dancing with Taylor Swift at the awards shows, they might as well crank up the EDM, hold their noses, and take the dough. As for all the cheese and corn and crowd-pleasing gestures, well, you might have noticed the big blue “like” button appended to your songs and statements. When everything you do is immediately evaluated — in a public setting by your peers, no less — that’s a lot of pressure to conform to popular demand. It takes an asshole with the stature of Kanye West to say “as soon as they like you, make them unlike you.” From what I can see, he’s been test-marketing Waves out the wazoo, so maybe even he’s become a slave to the approval rating. We are playthings for historical forces. I wish it wasn’t so, but it’s so.
- 17. FFS — FFS (129)
- 18. Kacey Musgraves — Pageant Material (128)
- 19. The Decemberists — What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World (124)
- 20. Speedy Ortiz — Foil Deer (122)
Let’s check in with some poll veterans to see how they’re weathering the hurricanes of time. If you’re a newcomer to this game, you might have been surprised to see the latest Belle & Sebastian set at #3. Don’t be: they’re the house favorites. B&S is one of only two acts to win this poll twice — If You’re Feeling Sinister in ’97, and The Life Pursuit in ’06 — and any time they put a record out, they’re a threat to take a third title. I’ve never made a secret of my affection for them, and several bands I’ve played with (including my own) have profitably ripped them off, I must have bumped into ten regular poll voters at their Radio City show this summer, and I’m the goon who counts this up and writes it up. Sufjan Stevens, regular high scorer, didn’t do quite as well here as he has on other polls, but Carrie & Lowell did place in the top 30; Destroyer, a frequent top ten finisher, crashed to #32. Drake, on the other hand, made a return to the upper reaches of the poll after an album cycle spent missing in action. For reasons I still can’t figure out, nobody voted for Nothing Was The Same. This year, you all remembered your awkward cousin Drake on your holiday list. Must have been “Hotline Bling” that did it. After a strong 2013 finish for Lousy With Sylvianbriar, the more complicated and darker Of Montreal album Aureate Gloom finishes at 30 — a relatively unimpressive landing place for a perennial contender that took the ’07 poll. Metric squeezed into the top 40 with the widely-maligned Pagans In Vegas, while the Mountain Goats’ Beat The Champ hardly got any support at all. Guess you folks don’t love professional wrestling like John Darnielle does. Richard Thompson didn’t get much love on the poll for the iffy Dream Attic or its superior followup Electric, but Still put him back in the top 30, where he was a regular finisher in the ’80s and ’90s. I believe he’s got a future in showbiz. Lana Del Rey continues her grim-faced march up this list; she remains a pretty good bet to win one of these contests someday now that she’s been exonerated for her capital crimes.
The Decemberists deserve their own paragraph. Since Her Majesty, the group has always placed on the poll, but enthusiasm is waning. This I know because you told me so: many of you who put What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful world on your ballot expressed your disappointment with it. I, too, was partial to the version of Colin Meloy who sang goofily about chimbley sweeps and bombazine dolls and who stuffed unsingable words into his lyrics like a Victorian infantryman with a musket and a ram. In his old age, he’s become a singer that even your momma would recognize as good — although I think he was more fun when he was sloppier. But Meloy in ’15 is like a guy who used to be a polymath and a mischief-maker, and who grew up and took a position at a respectable NGO. On some level you admire it, but the constriction marks are visible all over his personality.
- 21. Lupe Fiasco — Tetsuo & Youth (119)
- 22. The Front Bottoms — Back On Top (114)
- 23. Sufjan Stevens — Carrie & Lowell (110)
- 23. Miguel — Wildheart (110)
- 25. Ashley Monroe — The Blade (106)
- 26. Oneohtrix Point Never — Garden Of Delete (100)
- 27. Richard Thompson — Still (98)
- 27. The Chills — Silver Bullets (98)
- 29. Beach Slang — The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us (96)
- 30. Of Montreal — Aureate Gloom (93)
Jersey alert: the Front Bottoms continued to run strong in this poll, placing 22nd and gathering plenty of votes and mentions from the lands beyond the Delaware. All that touring pays off, kids. Meanwhile, the Roadside Graves picked up where they left off four years ago with Acne/Ears, the band’s first disc for Don Giovanni. The Graves slightly outpolled their labelmates the Screaming Females, who finished in 43rd place. Deliverance, which turned out to be a swan song for River City Extension, came in right behind that at 45th. Once again, Titus Andronicus barely got a handshake on this poll. What do they have to do to impress you folks, I ask? — if a five-act rock opera doesn’t get your attention, maybe nothing ever will.
- 31. Jeffrey Lewis — Manhattan (92)
- 32. Destroyer — Poison Season (91)
- 33. Bjork — Vulnicura (89)
- 33. The Roadside Graves — Acne/Ears (89)
- 35. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — Surf (87)
- 35. Dawes — All Your Favorite Bands (87)
- 37. Hot Chip — Why Make Sense? (86)
- 38. Jason Isbell — Something More Than Free (84)
- 38. Metric — Pagans In Vegas (84)
- 38. Blur — The Magic Whip (84)
Okay, that’s all I’ve got for you today. I’ll check in tomorrow with the singles, and another long and cranky essay about a certain media company that bugged the heck out of me in 2015.
Other albums getting #1 votes:
- Alberta Cross — Alberta Cross
- Algiers — Algiers
- Bob Dylan — Shadows In The Night
- Bruce Springsteen — The Ties That Bind
- Colleen Green — I Want To Grow Up
- Dornik — Dornik
- Enter Shikari — The Mindsweep
- FIDLAR — Too
- FKA Twigs — M3LL155X
- Future — DS2
- Haitus Kaiyote — Choose Your Weapon
- Jamie xx — In Colour (narrowly missed the top 40)
- Julieta Venegas — Algo Sucede
- Kamasi Washington — The Epic
- Mac McCaughan — Non-Believers
- Palehound — Dry Food
- Pollyester — City Of O
- Quarterbacks — Quarterbacks
- Rachel Grimes — The Clearing
- Snacks For Y’All Qaeda — Snacks For Y’All Qaeda (note: probably imaginary)
- The Apartments — No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal
- The Unthanks — Mount The Air
- Wilco — Star Wars
- Young Thug — Barter 6
- Young Thug — Slime Season