The 50 Best Songs of the First Half of 2015

The first half of 2015 has come and gone! And now, with the ability to gaze back at the last six months and make instantaneous, complete and, of course, completely-infallible judgments about the music released therein.

And it’s been a good few months! It’s certainly been the easiest since I started doing this to pick out the highlights, which is saying something. As always, there’s a folder with these songs in it here, and any disagreements you may believe that you have with the selection are , of course, wrong.

Here we go!

Action Bronson – Baby Blue (f Chance the Rapper)
It’s weird to have gone through what seems like an entire career arc (or at least the first phase of one), and then, after all that, have to deal with Action Bronson’s “debut.” In any event, the record itself is a real hoot. There have been a handful of great party records this year1, and I don’t know if I would have picked Action Bronson as a candidate for being responsible for one of them, even with the help of Mark Ronson (who produced “Baby Blue”), but here we are. Bonus points for the best kiss-off of the half-year in Chance’s feature, which is great all the way through, but reaches its high point with “I hope you never get off Fridays/And you work at a Friday’s/That’s always busy on Fridays”.

1 at least two of which feature Chance the Rapper, see below

BadBadNotGood x Ghostface Killah – Mind Playing Tricks
Whatever it takes to keep Ghostface on top of being Ghostface, I’m for it. If that thing just so happens to be a jazz trio from Canada, then more’s the better.

Courtney Barnett – Kim’s Caravan
Courtney Barnett gets compared to a lot of people, but rarely Robyn Hitchcock – like Hitchcock, Barnett finds her inspiration in some fairly nonstandard places, with the effect extending well past her lyrics into the simple song constructions that feel almost as small and focused as the details and events that inspired their creation. Much has been made of Barnett’s “maturation” from spirited basher to “deeper” songwriter, but I think it’s less an evolution (I mean, it’s still pretty bashy) and more of a refinement – she knows what she wants to say now. The results are fantastic.

Bjork – Stonemilker
Vulnicura is, as remarked upon, a deeply miserable album, chronicling in heart-wrenchingly specific detail the emotional state of her recent separation from her partner. In addition to reaching new depths of sadness, it stands, compositionally, as some of Bjork’s most subtle work – even her voice, which is usually irrepressibly big and singular in its deployment – is generally curbed to serve the subdued, personal lyrical themes. “Stonemilker,” the single (and album’s high point) is certainly no exception, but has what may be one of the best melodies in the entire Bjork ouvre.

The Body & Thou – Beyond the Realms of Dream, That Fleeting Shade Underneath the Corpus of Vanity
The Body are easily one of the top two shouty noise duos from Providence2, last year they hooked up with scary Louisiana metal dudes Thou for a split EP that, in short, melted faces all over. This year there turned out to be more, as they reissued the thing with a bunch more songs on it. This is good news3, and it yielded an absolute monster in “Beyond the Realms of Dreams”.

2 the other is Lightning Bolt
3 except for their really boring cover of “Terrible Lie,” which seems like something that was probably fun to record (insofar as the members of either Thou or The Body seem like they’re capable of having fun recording anything) but is not really any good for listening to.

The Cairo Gang – Be What You Are
Emmett Kelly’s work with (or as) The Cairo Gang is the picture of consistency. He makes most of his musical work as a sideman (most often with Bonnie “Prince” Billy), and carries the same sort of unassuming “get the job done” attitude through to his own band. The result is effective, efficient power-pop that leaves everyone dancing and humming, followed by a dozen or so songs with similar effects, amen.

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – The Last Time I Saw Your Face
A Year With 13 Moons came with a backstory (Jefre Cantu-Ledesma’s divorce, which brought him back to living in America), a bigger label than usual (Mexican Summer), and is his most accessible work since mid-period Tarentel. Not that you’d know any of that (well, you could probaly guess the divorce part – it’s a sad, sad record) from the sound of things, as JC-L continues to follow his weird, abstract notions of ambience and noise wherever they lead him. “The Last Time I Saw Your Face” sounds like the soundtrack to a (sad) movie playing in another room that you don’t know anything about.

Cloakroom – Deep Sea Station
Noble midwestern shoegazers Cloakroom enlisted the production assistance of the forefather of noble midwestern shoegazers, Matt Talbot, to help them make a noble midwestern shoegaze record. The results were not only better than anticipated, but better than could even be expected.

Dan Deacon – When I Was Done Dying
It’s probably not fair to compare a Dan Deacon record to a Bjork record, but I’m about to. Both Gliss Riffer and Vulnicura are above-average records by pop-leaning experimentalists, both of them make use of the tools and sounds of dance music to make records that you’d need to have a head injury to want to dance to, and both are deeply personal statements from artists that aren’t necessarily known for their deeply personal statements. “When I Was Done Dying” is also as conventional as Dan Deacon gets, which makes it all the more surprising that the song is so effective.

Death Grips – On GP
Death Grips (or at least part of Death Grips) were responsible for three records this year – the excellent instrumental Fashion Week4 and the uncredited i.l.y.s (which consist of at least Zach Smith and Andy Morin) made a riff-y grunge record – but the highly-anticipated Jenny Death is by far the best of them. Following up the Bjork-sampling Neighbas on the Moon to complete the double-album The Powers That B5, Jenny Death delivered pretty much everything you could want from a Death Grips record, and if it stands as their last statement, it’s a pretty righteous one. “On GP” even finds them slowing down and harnessing dynamic shifts (rather than just blowing through as fast and as loudly as possible), thus making it a high point if only for its skillful deployment of all of the assets of what is, really, an all-time great act.

4 complete with with its audience-baiting JENNYDEATHWHEN? track naming.
5 if nothing else, Death Grips remain the most confounding band currently going. Or not going, as it were, depending on how broken up they are right now.

Alyx Dennison – I Don’t Love You Anymore
There is a lot of Australian minimalist pop out there, and a lot of it is kind of interchangeable. Alyx Dennison, then, makes her way through the masses by being 1) more pop and 2) way more minimalist. There’s almost nothing going on here, which is what makes the whole thing really work.

Doomtree – Heavy Rescue
Doomtree finally released the follow-up to 2011’s GOAT, and ONAT favorite7 No Kings, and the results aren’t quite as life-changing, they’re still mighty impressive. Once again, the album’s finest hour7 belongs predominantly to Cecil Hour, although this time he had some more help. He remains one of the only people making music about whom it can be said I’m excited as a lyricist, which would be enough in and of itself to make it worth the lesson, but as it happens, “Heavy Rescue” is also another home-run from Minneapolis’ best, most disappointingly non-prolific rapper (and, y’know, also several other, more-prolific members of Doomtree).

6 and almost certainly a bunch of other initialisms if I really, truly applied myself.
7 on No Kings it was the much-mentioned-around-here “Little Mercy”

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Peasantry or “Light! Inside of Light!”
The second-most-exciting post-reunion album of 20158, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is a punchy, straightforward single-lp effort from the poster children for orchestrated-excess. The brevity actually serves the material very well, allowing the band to get in and out, making their point in a shorter, more dynamic space. In a year when a bunch of super-great musicians got as studiously weird as possible, Godspeed was probably not on the shortlist of candidates for tightening it up and getting poppier, but it certainly works out that they did. It also works out that I don’t put the song names in quotations in these write-ups, because can you imagine how I’d have to twist around to punctuate that thing? Yeesh.

8 Sleater-Kinney’s was first. Also, Godspeed has been back together for something like five years at this point, and 2012’s Alleluja! Don’t Bend! Ascend! was, technically, their first album back, but it was made of pieces that were at least a decade old and simply hadn’t been laid down to tape yet. Therefore I’m calling Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress their first “proper” reunion album. So there.

Colleen Green – TV
I’m as happy as anyone to be praising the continually-great work of Distaff Ty Segall9. Really, it’s just great. Catchy. Rockin’. Pretty cool stuff.

9.I’m not clear enough on my timelines to know if it’s accurate to call her “the American Courtney Barnett,” but I’ve been listening to Colleen Green for longer, so I assume it isn’t.

Rachel Grimes – Transverse Plane Vertical
True fact: Rachel Grimes was a founding member (and one of the only constant members) of the much-missed, all-time-great Rachel’s. Further true fact: the band, which shares a name with Rachel Grimes, was not named for Rachel Grimes, but rather for Jason Noble’s car, which was also named Rachel. Rachel Grimes has always leaned toward popular music dynamics, and “Transverse Plane Vertical” feels especially like a pop song, albeit played with classical instruments. It leaves most similar orchestrated-pop stuff behind by also being fun, which is several points in its favor.

Heart Attack Man – Acid Rain
All I’m going to say is, everybody loved Weezer for awhile, and if that’s where you’re going to start when you’re writing your power-pop songs with confusing acid-based metaphors, then you’re doing just about everything right.

The Honeycutters – I’ll Be Loving You
The Honeycutters are a superb trad-country band, about whom I have basically nothing interesting to say. “I’ll Be Loving You” is a good song. They still sound like they always have. Good times. Good times.

Inventions – Wolfkids
Inventions are made up of a member of Eluvium and a member of Explosions in the Sky, and last year’s debut sounded mostly like Eluvium, albeit a warmer, more organic Eluvium10. This year, the Explosions half of the band seems to have taken more of an interest in the direction of his band, and the results are more propulsive, as well as more textured and, as a result, more interesting. “Wolfkids” rightfully takes its place among the notable work of both of its creators’ full-time bands.

10 it’s probably not apparent from that sentence, but I liked the record quite a lot.

Kendrick Lamar – The Blacker the Berry
In creating the most-anticipated follow up in hip hop (if not in all of popular music) this year, Kendrick Lamar was seemingly in a position where he was unable to win – he didn’t have the advantages he did with Good Kid, M.a.a.D. City – he wasn’t a surprising new voice, he didn’t have the same years of low-key underground buildup. The advance single, “i”, was….not very good. The album itself turned out to be a gnarled, difficult-to-penetrate, extremely-human endeavor. It’s probably pretty good? But it’s good like old Mos Def records – it’s high-quality, but it’s homework. You have to sit down with it and dig into it. That’s a fine thing to be, but it takes time for that kind of thing to really unfold properly. All that said, “The Blacker the Berry” is a killer, the kind of monster song that people wanted Kendrick to make a dozen or so of (and he, to his own credit, refused to make more than just the one). So while there can be a lot of debate to be had w/r/t the general quality of To Pimp a Butterfly, “The Blacker the Berry” can be the fulcrum around which it turns – detractors can point to it as an example of what could have been, supporters can use it as proof that Kendrick knew how to do stuff like this, he just chose not to. We can all agree that at least this song is pretty great, though.

Leather Corduroys – Developers
Longtime readers will know that if there’s one thing I love, it’s talking voices as part of the backing track of a song. Shorter-time readers will have cottoned that if there’s another thing I love, it’s declamatory shouty rappers. None-time readers aren’t reading this, but if they were, they’d also figure out that these are qualities shared by “Developers,” and that makes it a pretty great song.

Lightning Bolt – The Metal East
Consistency is way underrated. Also way underrated: crazy, flailing drummers, heavily-distorted vocals, super-slow breakdowns, Lightning Bolt in general.

Marriages – Southern Eye
Emma Ruth Rundle got a lot of press attention for her post-Red Sparowes record last year, Some Heavy Ocean, and it was somewhat deserved, but she’s much better served in a full-band context, and even manages to score extra points by forming a new band, Marriages, with the mighty Greg Burns (also ex-Red Sparowes). They kicked around for a couple of years, and then released their full-length debut this year, which has this huge, surging guitar-storm that serves Rundle’s voice much better than anything has in years (specifically, at least since their debut EP Kitsune).

Vic Mensa – U Mad (f Kanye West)
I mean, it might matter that Kanye West is showing all of the non-musical signs of a pretty bad case of the brainworms. His singles in advance of SWISH11 have not been great! That said, his feature work is still pretty on-point, as evidenced here12. So, I suppose, I ain’t mad. Do I want to mention that I’m happy to see Vic Mensa achieve success outside of Chance the Rapper? Do I want to write anything about the qualities of the song? Do I want to do anything but bob my had to that fucking Charlie Heat beat? I GUESS I DON’T.

11 nee So Help Me God, and, honestly, doesn’t that title just say “brainworms brainworms brainworms” to you?
12 and in the somewhat-lesser but still pretty good “I Don’t Fuck With You” by Big Sean

Merzbow, Gustaffson, Pandi, Moore – divided by steel. falling gracefully.
A couple of years ago, Japanese noise-patriarch Merzbow, professional sax weirdo Mats Gustaffson and fantastic drum-human Balazs Pandi got together and made a noisy, skronky improvised record in the studio together. This year, they added American guitar-mangler13 Thurston Moore and did it again, only this time with some killer guitar-strangulation commentary. Sometimes sequels are better than the originals.

13 and erstwhile Sonic Youth-er

Metz – Spit You Out
One of the joys of watching Metz onstage is watching their kind-of dweeby, unassuming singer turn into a sweat-soaked rock machine pretty much instantaneously. One of joys of “Spit You Out,” specifically, is their ability to pound that riff into your ears like a railroad spike, and then keep pounding on it like it’s the only important thing in the world.

Miguel – Coffee (f Wale)
I mean, it probably didn’t surprise anyone that the new Miguel record is pretty great, but it is something of a surprise that the best song (and single) has a feature by Wale,, who hasn’t done anything worthy of praise in years. Of course, this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that most of the strength of “Coffee” lies in its chorus and in Miguel’s Prince-ly delivery, but the point stands: it’s Wale! On a good song!

Obnox – Slaughter Culture
Bim Thomas is the world’s foremost garage-noise purveyor, although he’s most commonly referred to as belonging only to Cleveland. As an emissary thereof, I say unto you all: there’s plenty of Obnox to go around, we can all share him. And we all should.

Oddisee – CounterClockwise
Washington D.C.’s long-running rap weirdo Oddisee made a record, which is always a cause for celebration, and it’s got actual singles and shit on it14! CounterClockwise is a particularly strong example of what Odd15 does well – namely, being weirdly catchy and making it almost, but not entirely, impossible to figure out what the hell he’s talking about.

14 rather than, like, isolated choruses that repeat seven times, or long single-section repetition exercises or something
15 Mr. Isee, if you’re being formal

Open Mike Eagle – Dark Comedy Late Show
It’s almost cheating to let this, a rewrite (or something) of last year’s “Dark Comedy Morning Show” through, but one of the things that makes Open Mike great is the ranting quality of his best songs, and “Dark Comedy Late Show” is some top notch ranting. Impressively dedicated to its “late show host” premise, “DCLS” finds OME16 expressing ennui, disillusionment and, via Yahoo, attachment issues.

16 I still like initialisms
Pan American – Rue Corridor
I think Pan American is just Mark Nelson now20? Whether the act is just him or not is rather impossible to tell, Sketch for Winter II sounds as much like Pan American as anything else. Which is to say that it continues to sound like a weird dubby (in the sense of heavy production effects) version of techno, as filtered through a jazz sensibility. Or something.

20 when I saw them perform, at the very end of 2013, there were two of them, but I’m unclear if the drummer was newly-hired, since-dismissed, or simply a non-recording member of the band.

Benoit Pioulard – The Very Edge of Its Flame
In addition to Sonnets representing something approaching aggression in Benoit Pioulard’s music (I know!), “The Very Edge of Its Flame” is also, hands-down, the best song I heard all year that lifts the “wouldn’t it be chilly with no skin on” part of that one song about the ghost of John. Surprisingly, these two things come together really well.

Prurient – Greenpoint
“Greenpoint” is probably the best song on Frozen Niagara Falls, but since FNF is hands-down the best album of the first half of the year, it’s mostly just there to represent the majesty that is Prurient’s most recent work. “Greenpoint” is pretty mind-blowing in and of itself, but as a part of the song-cylce, it’s even moreso. So enjoy “Greenpoint,” easily the best song ever named after a neighborhood in Brooklyn, but also go finda copy of Frozen Niagara Falls, strap on your fanciest headphones, and prepare to have your ears changed.

Rae Sremmurd – No Type
There are few things, regardless of genre, more pleasurable than people getting good at something fairly simple so that they can say it in their own way – even if their own way isn’t anything particularly novel or groundbreaking. Squeaking in just before the whole “alarmingly young nihilist” thing gets played out are Rae Sremmurd – this year’s Bobby Shmurda21 – proving that you can get away with a lot by being pretty good if you’re also very young and have a great ear for a hook.

21 or Chief Keef. Or, given their joie de vivre, Audio Push.

Ratking – Steep Tech (f Despot & Princess Nokia)
Ratking surprise-released a record on bittorrent, and it turned out to be bristling with tension and a tour-de-force set of beats from Sporting Life, their resident beatmaker. “Steep Tech” also features a particularly impressive verse from Despot who, it must be noted, still has not actually made a record of his own yet. This seems like it should not be the case.

Shilpa Ray – Johnny Thunders Fantasy Space Camp
It’s hard not to go for a lady who leads a band playing a harmonium. It’s even harder not to wish, as she does, that your parents sent you to Johnny Thunders fantasy space camp. That place sounds amazing. And also I bet they’d let you bring a harmonium.

Scallops Hotel – Tense Present
Milo, dba here as Scallops Hotel, is a real weirdo. He finds or makes lopsided beats and then constructs rhymes that sound like they’re either staggering from bar to bar or like they’re barely going to get off the couch. The truest thing that can be said for “Tense Present” is that it has the most apt title of any song released in recent memory. The second-truest thing is that Milo is a goddamned genius.

Micah Schnabel – Scared of Heights
Micah is 3222 and from Bucyrus, Ohio, a town which is located a short fifteen minute drive away from Marion, Ohio. As such, his songs have always been pretty close to my heart specifically. Of course, they’re also great songs. There isn’t much to Not the Boy You’ve Always Known to separate it from I’m Dead, Serious, or even the quieter, less-band-y moments of Two Cow Garage, but it is benefitted by a helpfully frills-free production approach. Since TCG are a band far, far better live than on record, it stands to reason that this is also true of their constituent members (see also: the Shane Sweeney record that also came out this year, or below’s paragraph about “Continental Distance”), so we can assume this is the best possible outcome. These paragraphs remain, as always, somewhat difficult to write, see.

22 the important fact here is that he’s about a year or so older than me, but the reason I know this is because he updates his age every year in the lyrics to “Folksinger’s Heart”.

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
I don’t have a whole lot to add to the chorus about the revived Sleater-Kinney. Like a bunch of other people, I spent most of the early-aughts calling them my favorite band that was currently active, I was saddened by their breakup after making one of their greatest albums, and I was super happy that their revival material has not only been incredible, but incredible in the same way as their pre-breakup material. But not having anything particularly to add to the conversation doesn’t make “No Cities to Love” any less of a great song. Nor does it, for that matter, make the video any less of an absolute delight.

Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld – The Sun Roars Into View
It’s always impressive to listen to the vast array of simultaneous things going on when Colin Stetson plays his enormous, close-miced saxophone – the breath, the tapping of the keys, the air escaping the various parts of the instrument. It’s also interesting to hear Sarah Neufeld bring a serious-violinist’s chops to playing more abstract music. It is, therefore, a no-brainer that a record the two make together would be a fantastic exploration of their instruments. Their ability to communicate in a musical sense (this is, probably, abetted somewhat, by their being married to each other) makes for really interesting, surprising combinations, and for a constantly-impressive (and deeply underrated) record.

Earl Sweatshirt – Wool (f Vince Staples)
The first couple of Earl Sweatshirt records had some pretty radio-friendly stuff on them – dude had a way with making people like him, as evidenced by his sort-of-mascot status in Odd Future. Now, with Odd Future basically defunct23, Earl can officially announce that he doesn’t go outside, then make a whole record that will make you believe it, if you didn’t already. “Wool” is, in the lightless, choked-out world of Earl Sweatshirt, what amounts to a “banger” – it’s got Vince Staples on it, after all, so it’s got to bang at least a little bit24. Despite having a tone that is unmistakably tense and dark, it’s also a pretty good example of how the insular nature of the record doesn’t actually render it unlikable or unlistenable – it’s pretty easy to go along with, even if you aren’t going to be playing it at your next beach party.

23 and, apparently, all the more creatively fecund for it, since most OF-related projects seem to be showing all kinds of artistic growth
24 this may be the appropriate time to say this: Vince Staples fantastic record, Summertime ‘06, was released on June 30, and even though I have a really lax and not-at-all-well-enforced policy toward release dates in these “half of the year” roundups would include it in this half, I didn’t get to it in time, and didn’t want to lie about what I liked, so you’ll see it in six months.

THEESatisfaction – Recognition
THEESatisfaction are on a criminally-ignored tear right now, making record after record that are surprising, illuminating and really, delightfully odd. “Recognition” is another winner, and I feel like I need to emphasize that if there’s one act in this list that you should really actually go listen to right now, it’s THEESatisfaction. It will improve your life, I promise.

Tough Old Bird – Rushford, NY 1927
Old-timey-oriented dudes record old-timey-sounding music literally in a barn, which they then call The Barn Sessions. If they let the act slip, it would probably be cutesy and annoying. As it is, it’s an awfully good folk record, and at least it isn’t digitally tortured into existence. 2015: the year of the judicious underproduction. You heard it hear first, folks.

Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Slip Slide
Mistakenly spoken of in reviews as a Chance the Rapper project, the Donnie and The Social Experiment record does feature Chance on a number of songs, and he does appear to have some sort of wrangler-job25 or something, but it’s really a band outing, and a small brass band at that. It benefits from something of a jam-session air: people dropping in and out of songs, coming back later in the record. Even the first single (and best song) opens with a few minutes of Busta Rhymes (continuing his seemingly endless run of flaming-hot feature verses, which he’s well into his fourth decade of coming up with), then, eventually Janelle Monae appears. Chance the Rapper does some weird, croaky-crooning. All over a party in the horn section. Would that there were a bunch more records this nakedly happy.

25 this is evidenced by the first line of “Slip Slide,” which is the inimitable Busta Rhymes thanking Chance for inviting him to participate in the record.

Two Cow Garage – Continental Distance
I have a t-shirt in my drawer that avows that Two Cow Garage is not a country band. To honor this avowal, I will not refer to them as such. I will not, for example, say that TCG represents the best possible version of rock-oriented country music, in the form of four dudes who play the shit out of songs for a crowd of people who know all the words and, for the length of the set, each other. I will say that this song is an absolute high-water mark for Shane Sweeney, and that it makes me happy to live in the same world as TCG every time I hear it.

Viet Cong – Silhouettes
I mean, it seems like this is the same very fertile ground that Savages were plowing a couple of years ago, minus the manifesto. I’m ok with it. In fact, I would argue that more people need to be making records that sound, essentially, like a black leather jacket. The Britishy post-punk kind, not the hairy biker kind. Although, actually, I’d be ok with more of that, too. This just isn’t that kind of thing. You know what? I’m abandoning this paragraph. “Sillhouettes” is a great song. The end.

Kamasi Washington – The Magnificent 7
Having received prominent credits on two of the best hip-hop records of the last twelve months26, Kamasi had a larger audience for this, his first record since the second Bush administration. On the one hand, it was absolutely worth the wait – album standout “The Magnificent 7” folds a dozen or so genres into its run-time, and it’s something less than a tenth of the album proper – on the other hand, this feast-or-famine approach is leading to periods of fallow desperation, followed by overgrown spite. That said, the honestly-titled The Epic is one of the all-time great triple albums, and “The Magnificent 7” is easily the best song titled “The Magnificent 7”.

26 Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! and Kendrick’s aforementioned To Pimp a Butterfly

Chester Watson – 4 Gig Nasa
This is getting ridiculous. Is Chester Watson even old enough to vote? How does he keep doing this? Anyway, if you’ve been following along, you know that Chester Watson is great, and that he continues to make brilliant out-there rap music even though HE’S A GODDAMNED TODDLER.

Wildhoney – Maybe You’re Crazy
There’s probably an end to the shoegaze revival. All things must end, after all. But for as long as it continues, I’m going to be very happy about it. You just try and see if I don’t.
Yowler – 7 Towers
Maryn Jones is already in two fantastic bands – power-pop bashers All Dogs, and Elephant 6-style strummers Saintseneca – and this year, she made another solo record27 as Yowler that doesn’t sound much like either – it’s sort of Grouper-esque, but mostly pretty singular, and “7 Towers” is the most representative example of what she’s doing over there. At the very least, it’s useful to distract everyone still waiting with baited breath for the full-length All Dogs record.

27 she had made one before All Dogs started, and it’s pretty good, but probably counts as “juvenalia”, or at least will when the dust settles. I think she’s like, 23? It seems weird to be talking like this about someone that young.

Zs – Xe
I’m pretty sure that at three players (guitar, saxophone, and drums) Zs has finally probably managed to stop jettisoning members at a rapid pace28, and it’s probably also fair to say that the resultant stripped-down live-approach method really suits the band well. Xe is the best Zs album by a country mile, and stands out for its fantastic saxophone performance even in a half-year dominated by saxophones (well, at least on this list).

28 although it’s worthy of note that not only is the drummer different from the one on the last record, but that it’s now the great Greg Fox, late of Liturgy.

Honorable Mentions – Drake managed to surprise everyone by dropping an album (that felt like a mixtape) that actually sounded like it had some life to it, and “Used To” is a good song that I willingly played multiple times, which hasn’t happened in a couple of years. Takaakira Goto’s “Till The Night Comes” was an excellent piece of orchestra-modified rock music, and an interesting look at what the Mono leader would do without his righteous band but, y’know, lacked the righetous band. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Do the Get Down” sounds pretty good, and the band hasn’t lost much as a band, except that they really just aren’t doing songs anymore (more grooves and exclamations, less structure), which is great for going to see them or playing a whole album, but less great for individual songs. Public Service Broadcasting has a similar problem – the whole record, taken as a piece, is pretty incredible, and “Go” is a very good song, but doesn’t hold up as well when it’s orphaned. The Punch Brothers continue to make fun, weird bluegrass music, but The Phosphorecent Blues is a little more jam-oriented and a lot less puckish, so “Magnet,” while a fine, standout song, doesn’t have quite the rollicking punch that Who’s Feeling Young Now? did. Nadine Shah’s “Fool” is perfectly fine gloomy art-pop, but you’ve got to start cutting somewhere. Joey Bada$$’s “No. 99” suffers from the fairly-common problem of being a solid song on a solid album, and therefore having a hard time sticking out. Akron noiseniks Faangface made a fun, hissy album about, presumably, a boat sinking, and “Cracked Hull” does a pretty good job of setting up said boat sinking. All Dogs’ “Georgia” is a pretty good All Dogs song.