The year 2015 has been a horrible year for almost everything but music.
Politics got uglier; terrorism spread further; the weather got weirder; violence seemed to be penetrating every area of our lives, from the schools to the streets to the churches; the news got worse, and social media made it harder to escape that bad news; and a general air of disquiet and anxiety seemed to pervade daily experience. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me.
What solace music has been during a time like this one, what a source of inspiration, and what a place to hide, if just for a little while.
Perhaps, we’ll look back at 2015 as the year of Kendrick Lamar, the rapper who made one of the most audacious albums of this year or any other in the genre-exploding strained beauty of “To Pimp A Butterfly.” Indeed, Lamar and the brain trust of killer young musicians who helped him craft “Butterfly” - Kamasi Washington, Thundercat and Flying Lotus among them - had their hands all over some of the most adventurous music to see release over the past 12 months, both as members of ensembles run by others, and beneath their own names. If you found yourself muttering “There’s no good music anymore” this year, you’d either stopped trying or stopped being able to hear it. Because it was everywhere. Much of it was not happening in the mainstream, that’s true. But really, when is most of the great art taking place in the mainstream? You want to find something rare and precious, you gotta get down and dig.
If you did some digging, here’s the best of what you might have found this year.
1) Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp A Butterfly” (Top Dawg). The amount of raw talent and intellectual heft bursting from the grooves of this album represented nothing less than a rebirth of hip-hop, and the first fully successful assimilation of jazz motifs and methodology into rap. No small feat.
2) Steven Wilson, “Hand. Cannot.Erase.” (K-scope) Wilson and his stellar band brought progressive rock into the 21st century with “The Raven That Refused To Sing” a few years back, and furthered their cause with this year’s “Hand.Cannot.Erase.” At turns brilliantly bombastic and sublimely subtle, the album set a new standard for modern rock.
3) D’Angelo, “Black Messiah” (RCA). He was gone too long, and we needed him. D’Angelo returned with sultry, steaming grooves and killer hooks.
4) Thundercat, “The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam” (Brainfeeder). A virtuoso electric bassist, eminently soulful singer and strikingly original composer. Thundercat also was part of the collective responsible for pumping jazz into Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly.”
5) Kamassi Washington, “The Epic” (Brainfeeder). A three-disc, 178-minute tour through the history of jazz saxophone, with plenty of hints of the form’s future. Washington defies easy categorization, but his compositional acumen and dazzling facility of his instrument simply scream jazz. He, too, had a major hand in crafting Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly.”
6) Mercury Rev, “The Light In You” (PIAS). Grasshopper and Jonathan Donahue conjure a twilight world here, one where the wistful, the beautiful and the ephemeral are allowed to exist, and the horrors of contemporary reality are kicked to the curb. There is no shortage of inspired beauty in the Mercury Rev catalog, but “The Light In You” emerges from the speakers like the sweetest of dreams. It ranks with their very best.
7) Jason Isbell, “Something More Than Free” (Southeastern Records). The finest singer-songwriter of his generation manages to one-up his last album, “Southeastern,” with a collection of tunes that wrestle with commitment and the rawness of post-addiction life, and win, every time.
8) Blackalicious, “Imani Vol. 1” (OGM). A triumphant return from hip-hop’s greatest due. The groves sear and the rhymes sizzle.
9) Nik Turner, Space Fusion Odyssey (Purple Pyramid) The former Hawkwind sky pilot crafts some interstellar rock-jazz-prog fusion with the help of some deeply talented friends, among them Billy Cobham, Robby Krieger, Steve Hillage and John Etheridge.
10) Iron Maiden, “Book of Souls” (Sanctuary). After 16 albums and several decades in the business, you would think Iron Maiden’s well of creativity might be starting to run dry. You’d be wrong. “Book of Souls” is crammed full of indelible riffs, memorable hooks, fantastic musicianship, and the still hair-raising howl of singer Bruce Dickinson.
Hiatus Kaiyote, “Choose Your Weapon” (Flying Buddha); Bjork, “Vulnicura” (One Little Indian); Jaga Jazzist, “Starfire” (Ninja Tune); Prince, “HITnRUN Phase One and Phase Two” (NPG); Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, “The Battle for Earth” (Royal Potato); Sufjan Stevens, “Carrie & Lowell” (Asthmatic Kitty); Alabama Shakes, “Sound & Color” (ATO); Leon Bridges, “Coming Home” (Columbia); My Morning Jacket, “The Waterfall” (Capitol); Tame Impala, “Currents” (Interscope).