Their Bated Breath: Best 25 Albums of 2015

David D. Robbins Jr. | Their Bated Breath

Here’s my quick list compiling 25 of my favorite records of 2015. Since I blog about music it’s inevitable that people offer me suggestions and even critique my taste, both of which are encouraged. So, in return, I have one request for everyone else for 2016: Try and listen to something new. For that matter, read something new or drive someplace you’ve never been or watch a film you normally wouldn’t. I’ve noticed over the past few years just how limited most people’s experiences are, including when it comes to their knowledge of music. It’s not money, time or access — it’s largely intellectual laziness or at least a kind of blind comfort in the familiar. People tend to listen to the same reassuring songs year after year and the same Spotify playlists where they’ve collected the 20 songs they listen to in rotation — essentially stunting what could someday become a real passion for something new. Hopefully, amid the usual suspects, my list offers you an unfamiliar voice or an untraveled avenue …

Listen to Jenny Hval’s psych-sexual (and brave) Freudian ramblings. Or try Natalie Prass, who is a swirl of Carole King and Rickie Lee Jones, but with her own twists. How about A$AP Rocky’s stellar track “L$D”, the first time I’ve ever heard him sound like he was conjuring PM Dawn. What is it I love about these records? I love the difference between Colleen Green’s carefree, fun approach to music in stark contrast to the serious but inventive work of Bjork. Two different ways at getting to cool creations. I love that rap has become so nuanced. Earl Sweatshirt raps like he’s a crazy black version of Steven “Jesse” Bernstein, but in a low key manner that makes him so different than, say, Tyler the Creator. I love that Patty Griffin still makes exceptional music, going all scorched-earth in her song “Gunpowder”, about male violence, guns, and those people like characters in a Cormac McCarthy novel — who seem to have an insatiable desire to destroy and kill. I love how Julien Baker seems to come from out of nowhere (okay, Tennessee) — and how this diminutive sweet-voiced collegiate pens songs so devastating they’ll tear your fucking heart out like Nick Drake used to do or Sarah Jaffe back in her debut EP years: “So I wrote you love letters / And sung them in my house / And all around the South / The broken strings and amplifiers / Scream with holy noise / In hopes to draw you out / But if no one sings along / In praise / Are you still proud / When I open my mouth? / Come visit me / Come visit me / In the back of an ambulance / A saline communion that I held like a séance / On the blacktop.” I love that Joanna Newsom is back, filling the void between Fiona Apple records for me. I love that Kendrick Lamar made a record so good there’s no burden to remake Good Kid, M.A.A.D City part two. In To Pimp A Butterfly Lamar is doing for rap what D’Angelo did for R&B last year with Black Messiah. Making a decidedly black record for black people employing touchstones of the past, but still keeping it an experience all listeners can enjoy. I’m not sure what’s going on with the music of Kurt Vile’s song “Life Like This” sounding exactly like John Maus’ “Hey Moon” — but they’re both beautiful. I love that Courtney Barnett is finally getting her due as one of the best lyric writers on the planet. It’s wild to read about her in all these major publications that completely missed listening to her early EPs or The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas — which still might be better than Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, as good as it is.

Lastly, my most joyous discovery this year is the music of a dazzling artist named Sianna Plavin. Her record, Go On Now is the best album I’ve heard all year. It’s like a holy fragment from Marcus Greil’s “Old, weird, America”. Her music is an affirmation and a dark journey, the latter making this record lean closer to Blind Lemon Jefferson and The Carter Family than The Be Good Tanyas. From the album opener, “Cruel”, we’re introduced to the brutality of man maiming nature — told though sullen guitar, ghostly harmonies and these lyrics: “Paw caught in the trap / Never seen blood like that / Cruel.” There’s a beautiful clarity to Plavin’s voice. It’s light of touch and yet world-wise. There’s something in it that’s as devastating and gradual as rust when she sings, “What makes me love you the way that I do?” in her song “Ghosts”. In her breath you’ll find love’s apparitions whispered with an old-world reverence, as if Plavin were the conduit to ancient stories of survival. And it’s the earth itself that sighs its secrets through her: “Hold on to your mountain / Hold on to your sea …” Her record is full of lovelorn leaning and off-the-beaten-path wisdom mined from a mind that appreciates the murky beauty of grey tones and moody gradients. (The standout track, “Low Hum” — a song ostensibly recalling beekeeping — contains one of my favorite moments on a 2015 record: Plavin sings verses using the word “honey”, changing the meaning of the word with subtlety through singing emphasis. Throughout the song the harmonics/double-track? gives this soft vibrating feeling like a buzz. It’s gorgeous.) You can hear mortality in the record’s deep bass and grace throughout. This feels like a record conjured in solitude, before its language gained the substantial flesh provided by at least six other musicians, playing everything from upright bass and banjo to cigar-box guitar. Plavin is an artist familiar with the soil. That seems apropos, because her songs don’t tell stories as much as they’re excavations, where shards and bone are revealed one brush stroke at a time. Each piece confesses a love, a superstition, a mysticism and the exquisiteness of the natural. Unfolding in her music is the real, the ethereal and everything in between.

25. Jenny Hval “Apocalypse, girl”

Song: “Take Care of Yourself”

24. Patty Griffin “Servant of Love”

Song: “Gunpowder”

23. Colleen Green “I Want to Grow Up”

Song: “Deeper Than Love”

22. Joey Bada$$ “B4.DA.$$”

Song: “Paper Trail$”

21. Father John Misty “I Love You Honeybear”

Song: “The Ideal Husband”

20. Waxahatchee “Ivy Tripp”

Song: “Air”

19. A$AP Rocky “At. Long. Last.”

Song: “L$D (Love and $ex and Dreams)”

18. Braids “Deep In the Iris”

Song: “Letting Go”

17. FKA Twigs “M3LL155X”

Song: “In Time”

16. Girlpool “Before the World Was Big”

Song: “Ideal World”

15. Kurt Vile “b’lieve i’m going down …”

Song: “Life Like This”

14. Earl Sweatshirt “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside”

Song: “Mantra”

13. Björk “Vulnicura”

Song: “Lionsong”

12. Beach House “Depression Cherry”

Song: “Levitation”

11. Joanna Newsom “Divers”

Song: “Sapokanikan”

10. Cousin Stizz “Suffolk County”

Song: “Dirty Bands”

9. Pop Staples “Don’t Lose This”

Song: “Love On My Side”

8. Natalie Prass “Natalie Prass”

Song: “Your Fool”

7. Lower Dens “Escape From Evil”

Song: “Ondine”

6. Vince Staples “Summertime ’06”

Song: “Lift Me Up”

5. Sun Kil Moon “Universal Themes”

Song: “With A Sort of Grace I Walked To the Bathroom to Cry”

4. Courtney Barnett “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit”

Song: “Elevator Operator”

3. Julien Baker “Sprained Ankle” (6131)

Song: “Blacktop”

2. Kendrick Lamar “To Pimp a Butterfly”

Song: “Institutionalized”

1. Sianna Plavin “Go On Now”

Song: “Low Hum”

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