Welcome to reality: Pazz & Jop 2015

My Pazz and Jop ballot:

Jazmine Sullivan · Reality Show 25 17
Vince Staples · Summertime ’06 10 70
Joanna Newsom · Divers 10 39
Dawn Richard · Blackheart 10 22
Speedy Ortiz · Foil Deer 10 9
The Chills · Silver Bullets 10 7
Maddie & Tae · Start Here 10 5
Carly Rae Jepsen · Emotion 5 91
Miguel · Wildheart 5 49
Earl Sweatshirt · I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside 5 24

SINGLES

Demi Lovato · “Cool for the Summer” 16
Justin Bieber · “What Do You Mean?” 16
Cam · “Burning House” 7
Janet Jackson · “No Sleeep” 6
Susanne Sundfør · “Accelerate” 4
Sakanaction · “Shin Takarajima” 2
Thomas Rhett · “Crash and Burn” 2
Years & Years · “Shine” 2
Bts · “I Need You” 0
Dierks Bentley · “Say You Do” 0

Sweatin’: Jeremih and Kehlani

Jeremih – Late Nights: The Album

No contemporary R&B singer has squandered his talents in the last eighteen months on useless guest appearances than this drummer by training, and if his record label woes are true I suppose he’s gotta remain in the public eye. After YG collaboration “Don’t Tell’Em” and “Planes” (“Here they go, playing verbal grab-ass again, with Jeremih in the Miguel role,” I wrote in February, the same way Miguel played the sensitive love god for Jeremih bro J. Cole). So it’s a pleasure to report that the singer’s faith in Late Nights is justified. With Vinylz and London on da Track frontloading, the near flawless first half shows trying his best to act tough for the sake of Migos on “Giv No Fucks” but comes off as another dude in heat with a damp croon. When he’s not doing that, he sticks to a staccato delivery as if words were hyphenated syllabically on lined paper (“Feel Like Phil”), or were sprayed like buckshot (“Planes”). And in the Percocet zombie state of “Royalty” (on which Future reprises his own opiod and strippers anthem released a few months ago) he can slow it down. Big Sean has the song’s big reveal (“When we fuck, you like the finger in the asshole”), but Jeremih is the open libertine, posing as a scenester bored with VIP lounges who, like Miguel, would rather have coffee in the morning, preferably after the molly’s worn off and his casa stops smelling of Patron and the hangover’s as big as his erection. That’s what the finale “Paradise” delineates over an acoustic arpeggio. “Two Tylenols and a smoothie/Work out and maybe jacuzzi” sounds like a delightful morning. ‘Thirteen new texts, man they jockin’/That’s just more checks in my pocket” — guess he does love those J. Cole appearances after all, until marketplace shifts tell him he’s not supposed to.

Kehlani – You Should Be Here

Listening to Late Nights I wondered how Kehlani would inhabit the same tracks. R&B but less interested in aural novelty, You Should Be Here chronicles the life of an adult woman who gets over lovers better than she did her mom, the subject of a near masterpiece of confessional angst called “The Letter.” The twenty-year-old Kehlani Parrish’s debut is thicker, less aqueous than Tinashe or Jhene Aiko’s work. Chance the Rapper gets his best post-Donnie Trumpet appearance.

Best albums of 2015 — the final chapter

4. The Chills – Silver Bullets

Did you know this seminal New Zealander act released a new album this fall? And it’s good! Political skullduggery upsets Martin Phillipps. So does the rape of the oceans. In defiance, he tunes his guitar to sound aqueous; his chords have a turquoise sheen. He still thinks a good pop song is a remedy — not the best. He’s learned enough about panaceas.

3. Miguel – Wildheart

From June: Miguel has never sung this well for so long, and Wildheart is a wonderful album, closer to one of Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah releases than “Adorn”: a dense amalgam of sexual politics and personal apocalypse, of R&B balladry and singer-songwriter strum, of typographical oddities. Ravishing the otherwise ponderous “flesh” with his upper register, multitracking himself into a Miguel Army on “DEAL,” agitating his tenor on “leaves,” he tests the range of his emotive powers; he’s restless, unwilling to sit in any space too long. Two years of vestigial guest appearances should’ve sapped his recording fervor; for a success-has-spoiled-me follow-up Wildheart seethes with possibilities, is alive to the ridiculous. Sex for Miguel is a ritual choreographed to signals sent by his lovers. He wants you to have sex with him, he’s pretty sure you’ll like it, he’s damn sure he’ll love it, and sharing this info with you is part of his natural courtesy.

2. Maddie & Tae – Start Here

Unreviewed at the time but a sleeper, the debut album by the creators of “Girl in a Country Song” have written a dozen sturdy variants in which Southern girls mouth off at stupid boys but still yearn for that cute stupid boy to help spread their wings and fly. Taylor Dye and Madison Marlow write well and sing better. Consider its high placement a full endorsement of what they’ll release in 2017.

1. Jazmine Sullivan – Reality Show

For the first time in more than twenty years of listmaking, an album released in January not long after packing the plastic Christmas tree was so assured that it resisted comers. More than five years after R&B hits that didn’t cross over and a couple after announcing she was leaving the biz, Jazmine Sullivan released the album that I doubt anyone thought she had in her. She can belt, she can rumble below her range, she can howl — over strings, dance beats, and click tracks. Surrounded by aging coworkers and some friends who find solace in pop culture’s definition of “mature music,” which often signifies as a negative position (“I don’t listen to pop music”) instead of choosing, say, Adele, I’ve recommended Reality Show all year as an example of adulthood delineated with the cold eye it deserves. As many of my aging female coworkers and friends know, reaching adulthood doesn’t earn one a wreath; at best it’s easier to accept reality, as “Mascara” makes plain. You’ve had twelve months to buy Reality Show. What are you waiting for?

Best album of 2015 — part one

20. Alan Jackson – Angels and Alcohol

An amiable craftsman of the here’s-another-table-I-built school for most of the nineties until crossing over pop with the most poignant of 9-11 songs — a feat that alluded Wilco, sure, but also Paul McCartney — Alan Jackson’s new head of steam dissipated after 2006’s exemplary Like Red on a Rose. It’s a pleasure to have him back writing good songs again. Angels and Alcohol leads with its best cut, an admonition that also serves as a reminder, to himself most likely. History suggests he’ll return to unflagging carpentry work again. “Suddenly, Jackson’s unflagging ordinariness became his greatest strength,” Keith Harris wrote in a fine recent appraisal about “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” but Angels and Alcohol suggests he can still flex.

19. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

In March this album sounded undeniable, a minor classic. Repeated play exposed a voice that sometimes can’t keep up with the tunes or guitar, and overexposure on year end lists cooled my ardor. But when I play “Depreston” and “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t” I hear the 2010’s answer to those “well-crafted” John Hiatt and Marshall Crenshaw records I was supposed to eat with my parsnips two decades ago.

18. Angel Haze – Back to the Woods

Back in September: After a couple of mix tapes (including 2012’s remarkable Reservation) and a commercial release that delighted nobody, Angel Haze returns to first principles, crafting these beats with the help of Tk Kayembe and no guest stars in a forty-minute display of virtuosity as excoriating and complete as anything by solo Lennon and Eminem, the latter of whom got a bigger favor than he deserved with a “Cleaning Out My Closet” cover re-imagined as a admission of incestual rape without a garish note. The self-professed agender rapper’s a fatalist but not a defeatist — that’s why Back to the Woods exists.

17. Kehlani – You Should Be Here

Every December an album elbows its way into my meticulously assembled list. The twenty-year-old Kehlani Parrish’s debut is thicker, less aqueous than Tinashe or Jhene Aiko’s work. You Should Be Here chronicles the life of an adult woman who gets over lovers better than she has her mother, the subject of a gripping bit of confessional angst called “The Letter.”

Love streams: Adele’s ’25’

attends the Oscars Governors Ball at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California.

John Seabrook:

If you are an Apple or a Spotify subscriber (I am both), you are faced with a quandary over what to do about “25.” In the old days, you would have just gone out and bought the album. But streaming complicates the picture. You don’t want to buy the record because that would be giving in to what feels like a heavy-handed attempt to make us purchase the music twice—to pay another ten dollars on top of the ten-dollar monthly subscription (I have the Apple family plan, which is fifteen) for an album that will show up on streaming sooner or later. But how long do you have to wait? It could be a couple of weeks, it could be a year, or it might not be until Adele gets her diamond. How long can you wait? At least with DVD rentals, you have a pretty good idea of how long it’s going to be. But Adele and Taylor are making up the sales-to-streaming rules as they go along.

The rhetorical question on which Seabrook bases these conjectures baffles me. He assumes only casual fans use Spotify or Apple subscriptions, therefore these casual fans wouldn’t buy a physical or digital copy of Adele’s 25 — really? (“You don’t want to buy the record because that would be giving in to what feels like a heavy-handed attempt to make us purchase the music twice”). Those who care about music in the United States, casual listeners and fans, rewarded 25 with the biggest first week in music biz history. I’ll ask a rhetorical question myself: has Seabrook been to Target? I visited mine the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. I saw a modest display in the shrunken and rather sad CD section, another by the registers; that’s where the action was. Waiting for a self-checkout lane to clear, I counted four customers buying copies of 25; one customer bought three copies. The pattern repeated all weekend, no doubt. I will bet one of my Merona dress shirts that some of those customers streamed the album or sampled it on YouTube. More consumers than Seabrook thinks use streaming services to sample the cuisine before buying.

I don’t know what Seabrook’s point is. He asks an awful lot rhetorical questions. “Album sales are profitable, but they are not the future of the music business—streaming is,” he writes for the sake of The New Yorker’s audience, many of whom bear the same relationship to ownership of 25 as the Target customers in suburbia: consider the album’s ubiquity in most stores of every stripe a fact of holiday life. Seabrook: “Could it be possible that the record business, pursuing a strategy of inflating sales by keeping an album off Spotify, Apple Music, or Deezer, is choosing short-term profits over long-term growth? (Perish the thought!).” Please, perish it. Unless I’m reading him incorrectly, he’s confusing record company profits and the revenue that artists make. That’s why Adele and Taylor Swift have reneged on streaming — the record companies are, by their calculations, less relevant than ever but just as greedy as in the days of Billy Joel and Paul McCartney making a dollar or whatever off every album sold. Of course Swift and Adele would allow their material on streaming services if their royalties were commensurate with their labor. To submit to streaming means acquiescing to caprices. I don’t understand why contributing to “significantly increased streaming subscriptions” would “benefit” artists when the system as it exists wants to drive them to penury.

Eric Church, Justin Bieber

Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood

A strange thing about The Outsiders: “Talladega” and “Cold One” sounded fine on the radio. Maybe it’s a post-CD age album after all, refuting the sticky recollections in Mr. Misunderstood‘s title track, on which Eric Church the adolescent Elvis CAH-STELL-LOH fan scowled at top forty listeners, thus earning the right to join the ranks of the alienated. The conceit of “Record Year” delineates how the pop of old vinyl saved his life. More than his children (subjects of a cornball but well-wrought valentine that I expect from Brad Paisley), more than whiskey, more than music itself, Church loves the nostalgia of record listening. Implied is the discomfort of modern life: of weaklings who don’t rock like he does, of being a parent whose mind is necessarily on other things. Sporting too many acoustic numbers, Mr. Misunderstood embraces the frustrations of being a conservative musician who senses his reactionary traits and uses metaphoric violence as pressure valves; the dominance of acoustic numbers is a palliative, I’d say, for the rockers he’s recorded since 2014 have a pulverizing effect, boasting boring hair metal chords and self-pitying lyrics and Method snarling that are the musical equivalent of a college age National Review blogger. But on the whole Mr. Misunderstood is a more persuasive album than The Outsiders, fleet about expressing his passions even if I miss outrages like “Dark Side.” “I come undone every time I get some/kick drum, guitar strum,” he spits on “Chattanooga Lucy” over kick drum and guitar strum. A confused motherfucker he remains, though. On another tuneful semi-rocker called “Kill a Word” he runs through a list of adverbs that he can’t help using and would beat black and blue. Right. Using violence to kill violence always works.

Justin Bieber – Purpose

“Sorry” and “What Do You Mean” are insistent and insinuating examples of sterling chart pop, understated even. The rest, especially the repugnant “Love Yourself,” sells Bieber as a self-aware advice-pedddling asshole superstar, the Lucy to the Charlie Browns he wants to fuck. Maturity in 2015 chart pop terms requires penance while copping a feel.

Rage, rage: Grimes, The Chills

Grimes – Art Angel

After three albums and a New Yorker profile, Claire Boucher is ready for crossover. These self-made beats are so dense that the absence of Ryan Tedder, Esther Dean, and other “topline” composers in the credits will come as a surprise. The majority of the tracks boast program rhythms and an arpeggiated riff on guitar or synths.The make or break point is Grimes’ voice, manipulated to chipmunk levels of squeak. On the dream pop of Visions, it was enough; on these crossover dreams, which require vehemence, the squeak produces a distancing effect. On “Flesh Without Blood,” the title track, and “California” (yet another heart caught in a rift, in cold pacific waters), it doesn’t matter, her register shifts punching a bridge here and brightening a chorus there. And I didn’t expect the most remarkable track, “Realiti,” to remind me of both versions of “I’m Not Scared,” of trying to hide the tremble from other people – other men – and sometimes failing.

The Chills – Silver Bullets

Song for song the first effort by this loose New Zealand collective since the World Wide Web took off is the brightest guitar album of the year. Part of my reaction is relief: those vocals and familiar rolling piano lines still syncopate (“Aurora Corona”), those tunings still tug at the heart (“I Can’t Help You”) while recalling a particular strand of early nineties college radio mush like The Ocean Blue, The Church, and much lesser lights. Distracted by sundry addictions, Martin Philipps denounces environmental crimes and the power structures that protect the scoundrels, which include mortgage lenders, and bravo to him for dealing in specifics (on “Silver Bullets” the denunciations come encased in the titular metaphor). Knowing that politics is, in his words, a trap, a trick, a terrible cynical game, doesn’t stop him from strumming and picking, nor does this fact contain his rage.

Best albums of 2015 – third quarter report

I wanted to make it an even thirty but figure I still have eight weeks and I’m comfortable with these finalists. In chronological order.

Jazmine Sullivan – Reality Show
Dawn Richard – Blackheart
Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer
Sleater Kinney – No Cities to Love
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Young Thug – Barter 6
The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ
Heems – Eat Pray Thug
Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart
Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think
The Mavericks – Mono
Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba – Ba Power
Florence + the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Jason Derulo – Everything is 4
A$AP Rocky – At Long Last ASAP
Dead Sara – Pleased to Meet You Over
Alan Jackson – Angels and Alcohol
Brandon Flowers – The Desired Effect
Miguel – Wildheart
Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
Ashley Monroe – The Blade
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf
Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion
Angel Haze – Back to the Woods
Destroyer – Poison Season
Future – DS2
Robert Forster – Songs to Play
Janet Jackson – Unbreakable

John Grant, Deerhunter, Tamar Braxton

John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure

“Parataxis is the order of the way/I’ve never heard that world until tonight, I have to say,” the Pagliacci of modern electro-folk warbles expertly on the title track over synth strings and metronomic drumming. The Leonard Cohen of I’m Your Man is the model: courtly love songs over the cheapest Radio Shack keyboards (see “Black Blizzard”). 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts was one of the funniest singer-songwriter albums in recent years and hence truest. This album experiments with English accents and thicker electronic patterns, to uneven effect; his voice, suffused with dolor, needs less not more affect. The archness of the music complements the often hysterical lyrics: I don’t know about Hitler jokes in 2015, especially when Kate Bush barely got away with one a quarter century ago.

Deerhunter – Fading Frontier

Formally there’s not a damn thing wrong with it, and at thirty-six minutes a bargain besides. But their seventh album is much too soft, too beholden to instrumental glossolalia. Like on the John Grant album, vintage keyboards rule (“Ad Astra”). “All the Same” gets a har-har because it sounds like the kind of manicured tune from a band opening for, say, Real Estate. “Duplex Planet” is slow Phoenix. “Snakeskin” is supposed to have a pulse.

Tamar Braxton – Calling All Lovers

“Let Me Know” was the breakthrough: a synthesized arrangement from a Karyn White ballad, punctuated by Future. It was an R&B airplay hit. Summoning the reinforcements, Braxton lards her fourth album with a string of undistinguished cousins, many too melodically similar for her to do anything but blast over them as if she were Keyshia Cole. The best tracks come early: the skank of “Angels and Demons,” the worried wish and hope of the “Baby I know the real you” refrain in “Catfish,” and, too late, the decent clipped funk of “Must Be Good To You.”

Don’t call them comebacks: New Order and Robert Forster

New Order – Music Complete

Boredom and a lifetime’s worth of acrimony having forced the departure of their most crucial member, the trio plus two unassuming additions record a better bunch of songs than anyone, including the trio, had a right to expect. The song lengths look daunting, but not if you take Bernard Sumner’s line “One day at a time, inch by inch” on the well-named “Singularity” as thesis and maxim. It’s as a post-breakup album that Music Complete makes most sense. Those two new members add crucial, understated contributions, and besides, the returning Gillian Gilbert’s three-note fill in “Singularity” and house keyboards powering the verses in “Tutti Frutti” suggests she’s the most crucial member after all (“Peter Hook partisans should note,” a friend wrote: “They made a much better album without Hooky than they could without Gillian”). So what if they sound like Todd Terje or the Juan Maclean? Does it matter if Chemical/spiritual Brother Tom Rowland’s idea of earning a co-writing credit is to add a sequencer yanked from The Bravery’s “An Honest Mistake”? Anyway, to record a Happy Mondays homage like “People on the High Line” in 2015 is less offensive than it would’ve been in 1993 (less irksome than Iggy Pop’s Vincent Price routine in “Stray Dog”). Aside from Rowland and a grateful Brandon Flowers on “Superheated,” Music Complete‘s productions are the band’s own. Call it a decent return in a career that has defined the word. Not a comeback though — I haven’t forgotten Waiting For the Sirens Call and Get Ready. They’ll get by without Hooky, who would have encouraged more second half snoozers like “Academic” and “The Game.”

Robert Forster – Songs to Play

“Don’t stare at the heavens/Looking for the movement of time” — he’s accepted a couple of things since the death of his musical partner almost a decade ago. On this model of reticent, well-turned folk, the former Go-Between still writes variants on the Velvet Underground’s “That’s The Story of My Life” and solo Lou Reed. Since 1988 Forster’s been writing songs at a level of acuity that Grant McLennan matched but didn’t surpass; he was the one who was the sucker for oo-oohs and arpeggios over candyland lyrics. But the biggest pleasure of their new millennium reunion was their gingerly re-acquaintance with band dynamics. By 2005’s Oceans Apart Forster and McLennan were Forster-McLennan again. Forter’s last album The Evangelist basked in this glow, a Go-Between album recorded by despondent but resolute survivors. Songs to Play means what it says: I’m Robert Forster, I’ll strum songs for my cult, see you in six years. But stick with this brief collection and details emerge, like the flamenco garnishes in “Songwriters on the Run” or the mariachi trumpet in “A Poet Walks.” As the titles imply, this album is as much about the pleasure of writing, of using talents to evoke beautiful things in the hope of making beautiful things. “Let Me Imagine You” breaks its indebtedness to “There She Goes Again” when Forster abandons the burnished talk-singing to sing the refrain. The keeper is “I Love Myself (And I Always Did),” which speaks for itself, a manifesto for the self-assured middle aged man, helped, as is the male heterosexual’s wont, by a woman. She’s Karin Baumler, responsible for the apposite violin parts in “Learn to Burn.”

Doomed youth: Angel Haze and the Libertines

Angel Haze – Back to the Woods

“Since ’91 I’ve been a menace.” “I don’t feel, I don’t feel, I don’t mean nuthin’.” “Been alone since the motherfuckin’ jump, man.” And that’s just one song, a confessional called “Exposed.” After a couple of mix tapes (including 2012’s remarkable Reservation) and a commercial release that delighted nobody, Angel Haze returns to first principles, crafting these beats with the help of Tk Kayembe and no guest stars in a forty-minute display of virtuosity as excoriating and complete as anything by solo Lennon and Eminem, the latter of whom got a bigger favor than he deserves with a “Cleaning Out My Closet” cover re-imagined as a admission of incestual rape without a garish note. The self-professed agender rapper’s a fatalist but not a defeatist — that’s why Back to the Woods exists. The machine gun beats and string bursts on “Babe Ruthless” keyed to the line, “How can you say you’re not feeling me?”; the rhymed onslaught of “Impossible”; howling woooooh on “The Wolves” – she loves words and sounds for their own sake even when she’s singing with talent and rapping with near genius. “You either dead or you’re dying or you’re doomed.” I doubt Haze believes that. Chris Brown still won’t be singing on her albums.

The Libertines – Anthems for Doomed Youth

The first two albums were beautiful shambles, held together by a tiptop rhythm section and the force of Carl Barat and Pete Doherty’s frustrated love. Eleven years later, Anthems for Doomed Youth offers decent songs with the most conventional arrangements of their career; it could be Ryan Adams, or Arctic Monkeys without the sneers and R&B pretensions. And it’s adult. Oh, how adult. Its inevitability doesn’t mitigate the disappointment.