Every year my mind gets blown by the cumulative good taste of Unwinnable’s contributors. Below you will find something akin to a consensus. An overwhelming number of contributors raised their hands for our album of the year. Otherwise, our choices charted thanks to passion – one or two writers loved a record enough to give it a place at the table. Or one writer loved something so much that they made an impassioned plea for runner up status.
Once you’ve read the list be sure to check out the Spotify playlist featuring (almost) every record nominated. My challenge to you for the month of January is to listen to this playlist on random, all month. No skipping. I bet you’ll find yourself surprised, enlightened and, hopefully, turned on.
– Gus Mastrapa
Uncle Acid – Night Creeper
Sabbath riffs are a dime-a-dozen. It’s what you build on top of that primal bedrock that matters. Uncle Acid’s dark magic is in the way they use grimy psychedelia to conjure the demons of Altamont, the ghosts of Spahn ranch. Their music rings with the ugliness of the era that birthed heavy metal at the same time that it pays tribute to the sound. The Night Creeper, their best record since their debut, turns its focus away from bikers and burnouts towards home — the sleazy London of the ‘70. It’s a concept record about go-go dancers, pushers and the descendants of Jack the Ripper. Lurid stuff to be sure. Rock was never meant to be pretty.
– Gus Mastrapa
Tribulation – The Children of the Night
The time has now come for black metal to surrender itself to the pop music monster. The process has already begun. Americans like Deafheaven have cannibalized the sound and sewn it together with shoegaze to create a bastard noise with indie appeal. Tribulation are a coven of gothy Swedes who stick very close to the chapter and verse of black death. And yet it’s also clear they’ve drunk from the same pop well as ABBA. These grim tunes have hooks that chafe gloriously against vocals that sound like a larynx awoken from a ten thousand year slumber. Children of the Night sounds like a catchy take on Watain peppered with snippets of Mike Patton’s favorite movie soundtracks. If that means something to you you’re in for a treat. If not you might just run screaming.
– Gus Mastrapa
Iron Maiden – Book of Souls
Most bands hit the 40 year mark, like Iron Maiden did the weekend after Christmas, and begin to phone it in, thinking most fans just want to hear the same hits they’ve heard over and over for years. Over the last 10 years, you could be forgiven for thinking this of Iron Maiden.
Bruce Dickinson’s return to the band with 2000’s excellent Brave New World was followed up by three good but unremarkable studio albums, each released on the back of an amazing tour. Five years removed from The Final Frontier, it seems like Maiden needed the extended break to recharge their batteries.
Embracing the scope and length of its predecessor, The Book of Souls sees the band releasing three of its longest songs on its first double album. The 13 minute “The Red and the Black” can definitely hang with the band’s previous magnum opus “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and at times it feels like the 18-minute closer “Empire of the Clouds” surpasses it. What we get is a surprisingly collaborative effort from the Irons, featuring the first non-Harris writing credits in 12 years and a double album that doesn’t feel overwrought (are you paying attention, Dream Theater?)
– Don Becker
Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy
For a long time, I’d forget that I like Titus Andronicus, forget they even existed. The Most Lamentable Tragedy has served as the definitive reminder.
No matter what I’ve listened to this year – the heaviest of metal, weird roots rock, classic 80s cuts – my path has inexorably lead back to The Most Lamentable Tragedy. That’s probably because the 93-minute, 29-track rock opera has a little bit of everything, a little bit of something for everyone. In any give song, I hear the echoes of Meatloaf, The Pogues, Thin Lizzy, Joe Jackson and straining aggression of countless punk bands. There are so many hooks and jaw-dropping arrangements that it is impossible to hone in on one high point to summarize the album. It is 29 high points, in ever-escalating sequence.
These lyrics from “Dimed Out,” delivered in Patrick Stickles’ trademark snarl, comes close to capturing the album’s manic energy, though:
And I’ve got plans I haven’t time to write down
I’ll incite a riot, fire flying all around
When I’m crying out, I’m howling with the wild hounds
Don’t wanna buy an ounce
For me, the right amount
is the entire pound
– Stu Horvath
Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete
It took some tinkering and testing, but Daniel Lopatin AKA Oneohtrix Point Never finally delivers the album that he’s been hinting at over the years with his other releases. Garden of Delete delivers all of the glitchy and fragmented trademarks of OPN with solid ideas and songcraft. This is the album where Lopatin can sit with fellow experimental electronic greats like Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Autechre and Squarepusher.
– Michael Edwards
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
2015 got off to a great start when Sleater-Kinney returned after a decade-long hiatus to release No Cities to Love in January. Picking up where they left off in 2005 with the fantastically raucous The Woods, this album was well worth the wait. The very first track, “Price Tag” begins with a classic Sleater-Kinney guitar riff punctuated by jangling chords setting the energetic tone that sustains throughout the record. And when the breakdown comes, an epic, single, powerful note rings out to let the listener know that this album is going to rock your goddamn face off.
Every song is distinct, yet they all fit together seamlessly to create Sleater-Kinney’s best start-to-finish album of their career. As always, the trio are perfectly complementary, Janet Weiss’ drumming is preternatural and I would literally kill whatever number of people it would take in order to achieve some of the guitar tones captured here in my own guitar playing. From the herky-jerky sprawl of “Bury Our Friends” to the titular track’s hard charging chorus, the album is unrelenting in its mix of catchy hooks and the group’s signature discordant dueling guitars. If you’re not dancing by the time you get to the anthemic “A New Wave,” you’re a garbage monster that shouldn’t listen to music anymore.
– Ed Coleman
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Few new songwriters emerge and hit the ground running with a fully-developed set of musical superpowers like Courtney Barnett. Her debut LP, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, is a ridiculously honed stroll through the malaise of the Australian suburbs, day jobs, commercialism, coffee drinks, insecurity and relationships. These songs are not only clever, but suggest there is wisdom to be gained from the universally mundane.
With the confident longing of a classic country star, CB pours streams of consciousness like a rainstorm over cozy melodies and spring-loaded leads as they huddle together under a blanket next to the window. Her slacker vibe and self-deprecating charm evoke early 90s influences like the Vaselines, the Breeders or the Lemonheads as often as they do the brilliance and whimsy of Gertrude Stein, Dr. Seuss or Winnie the Pooh. Its simple truths and infectious hooks are so undeniable that Sit is an album you don’t just listen to, but one you have a relationship with, and that’s why it’s one of our favorite albums of the year.
– Jay Pullman
Ghost – Meloria
When I pre-ordered Meliora and received the track, “Cirice,” I wasn’t as hooked as I thought I would be. When I received the album, I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but after a good two to three months of solid listening, I couldn’t get the songs out of my head. If any album has ear wormed me this year, its Meliora. After ditching the carnival sounds of Infestissumam, they returned with one of their most technically sound albums yet.
In interviews they have said that they wanted to concentrate on song writing and melodies and that they did. Every song seems finely crafted, locks into each other as a whole and sounds very “futuristic” compared to previous efforts. From the sci-fi sound of the albums opener Spirit to apocalyptic vision of the closer Deus in Absentia, Meliora delivers a well rounded experience.
If you strip away the Satanic imagery and the band’s Kiss-like aesthetic, you are gifted with a well written pop rock masterpiece. I would really like to consider them metal but even Ghost will tell you that they are more of a pop infused black metal band. For me, the band shines on “Cirice,” “Majesty” and “Absolution” and if you had a chance to see them live then you were treated to one of the best live shows in the last ten years. Whether you are a casual music fan or a die hard aficionado, Meliora needs to be on your radar. If it can capture the ear of a pop folk musician friend of mine, than surely you can look past the occult imagery to hear one of the finest albums of 2015.
– Ken Lucas
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Carrie & Lowell is a quiet, haunting album of devastating beauty; an excruciatingly intimate portrait of his relationship with his troubled mother, who struggled with depression and drug addiction and who abandoned him (“when I was three, three maybe four, she left us at that video store”); and, perhaps, the best album of a long career that’s already seen several bona-fide masterpieces. It may also most be the most sonically interesting; he’s made big albums with gigantic orchestral arrangements, and he’s also dabbled in electronics, but this is a sparse and stark album, where there are no unnecessary sounds; indeed, one of the album’s most affecting moments is his deep intake of breath that gets cut off at the end of “John My Beloved;” there’s also the gut-punch of the whispered “Fuck me, I’m falling apart” in “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross.” In a pre-release interview with Pitchfork, he warned potential listeners:
“Don’t listen to this record if you can’t digest the reality of it. I’m being explicit about really horrifying experiences in my life, but my hope has always been to be responsible as an artist and to avoid indulging in my misery, or to come off as an exhibitionist. I don’t want to make the listener complicit in my vulnerable prose poem of depression, I just want to honor the experience.”
This is an emotionally heavy album, to be sure, and it might be hard to recommend if you’re unfamiliar with his work, but it’s also the most powerful album he’s ever made, and even when I listen to it now, 9 months after it came out, I find it just as gorgeous and moving as I did the first time I heard it.
– Jeremy Voss
Album of the Year: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Kendrick is a self-professed Christian, albeit one who has refrained from taking part in many of the cultural trappings that typically come with identifying as one. Ultimately, Kendrick seems more interested in accomplishing a mission from God than in how cultural Christianity might like to co-opt him for its own purposes.
Thankfully for us, a significant part of that mission seems to be crafting undeniably great hip-hop. Lamar stands on the shoulders of great MCs who’ve come before him, and his humility drives him to incorporate this fact not only in pre and post-interview disclaimers, but in the album itself, in the form of a host of features and most notably in the mind-bending phone call with TuPac in the final track, “Mortal Man.”
That humility frames the whole of To Pimp a Butterfly, an album that meanders through Kendrick’s personal and spiritual growth, both a radically specific and undeniably universal work. Great art is truthful, and Kendrick’s latest work is undebatably truthful. It succeeds in challenging all parties involved: Kendrick himself, the listener, institutions that have failed us.
Kendrick sees those institutions for what they are: amalgamations of individuals. He sees both his complicity and responsibility. In a year when outrage has been weaponized, Kendrick demonstrates a form of outrage laden with hope and grace. Kendrick’s anger is a righteous one: tilted toward change that starts inward and emanates, finally, into the world.
– Richard Clark
Best Record for the Weary Traveler: The Tallest Man on Earth – Dark Bird is Home
Swedish guitar-picker Kristian Matsson, AKA The Tallest Man on Earth, often writes songs about being a traveler in solitude, but on his new record he’s added a backing band to his caravan, including Bon Iver’s Mike Noyce. And while that full-band sound might qualify as “going electric,” Matsson’s acoustic guitar has always had plenty of its own voltage. Ironically, this record, thematically, though far from cloistered – songs like “Little Nowhere Towns” and the standout “Seventeen” definitely have that open-road mix of hopefulness and weariness – there’s a lot less of that thrill of the chase which helped characterize past albums like “The Wild Hunt.” Matsson, who sings about a traveler coming home in “Slow Dance,” ends the record with the title track, in which a dying man sings to his lover as he enters into the afterlife. At one point – earlier on the record in “Sagres” – he laments “all this fucking doubt”; by the end of “Dark Bird is Home”, though, he’s crystal clear: “I thought that this would last for a million years/But now I need to go/Oh, fuck.” It’s the realization that another strange and extraordinary journey has come to an end, and a new one is ready to begin.
– Matt Marrone
The Best Rap Album That isn’t To Pimp a Butterfly: Vince Staples – Summertime ‘06
Kendrick Lamar meant a lot to me in 2015. To Pimp a Butterfly spoke to my heart as a black man. He made “Bad Blood” a listenable song. He is also the only part I can remember of Compton, Dr. Dre’s sadly empty and soulless compilation album. Even with all of that, I had to give the nod to Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06.
“Fight between my conscience, and the skin that’s on my body, man / I need to fight the power, but I need that new Ferrari, man”
Leading up to listening to Summertime ’06, I had Vince’s 2014 EP Hell Can Wait on repeat. “65 Hunnid (degrees)” was the soundtrack of my trip to E3 in sunny & blisteringly hot LA.
My first listen of Summertime ’06 was disappointing as it wasn’t as immediately friendly, obviously catchy, or just as easy to get into as his previous EP. Droning, morose beats met more complicated raps with deeper messages and sometimes harder to find hooks. But that’s what kept the album so fresh for me.
I understood, then, that the album was a journey, with catchy singles interspersed with melodic storytelling and the occasional gunshot to jar you out of the groove just enough to pay attention. Summertime ’06 is a young black man’s coming of age story filled with a moral greyness, fighting between ego and id, and a yearning to find where he fits in.
I recommend you watch the video for Norf Norf and then give the rest of the album a shot.
In reality, picking between To Pimp a Butterfly, Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth and Summertime ’06 was like choosing from the best of the best, and it wasn’t easy, and in the end I think we just had an amazing year of hip-hop that should be celebrated by everyone.
– Shawn Alexander Allen
Best Original Soundtrack to a 90s Neon-Cyberpunk Murder Thriller that was Never Made: Sun O))) – Kannon
Droning electric guitar. Slow, guttural vocals. An overwhelming sense of menace. These are the defining qualities of Sun O))) and Kannon takes them to new heights. While the menace of Sun O))) remains, Kannon eases back in favor of slow, thoughtful experimentation with their characteristic drone sound, resulting in an album that feels simultaneously ethereal and grounded, terrifying and soothing.
– James Murff
Best Skramz Feels: Envy – Atheist’s Cornea (bandcamp)
This album came out pretty early in the year, so it was an early front-runner for my album of the year. With the end of the year swiftly approaching, there hasn’t been anything else that’s topped it for me.
I firmly believe Envy is the greatest active band in the world right now, and seeing them live last month has solidified that belief.
– Mitch Bowman
Best Punk-Folk Album: Frank Turner – Positive Songs for Negative People
In his latest effort with the Sleeping Souls, Frank Turner continues his streak of near-perfect albums. Heartfelt tracks like the unrequited love ballad “Mittens” along with titular positive pick-me-ups like “The Next Storm” and “Get Better” highlight the album; they also showcase the two ends of album’s spectrum. Concluding with a live cut both celebrating and mourning the suicidal death of a friend, “Song For Josh” is a harsh, moving and raw encore to end the record, one that prompted me to hit the repeat button several times before returning to track one.
Ultimately that’s something I can say for a few songs on the album; I had a difficult time getting through for the best reason possible. There were too many songs I needed to hear again before moving on.
Frank is only going up from here, give him a listen.
– Erik Weinbrecht
Best 90s Throwback Mix: We’re Loud: ’90s Cassette Punk Unknowns
Man, are we at a point when we can comp the ’90s? Yes. All these songs had at least one thing in common, they featured (as a band member or were recorded by) Jamie Paul Lamb, a punk vagabound, living all across the USA in the ’90s. I can’t believe the quality of these recordings, on account of they were all sourced from cassette tapes and they were made/kept by a junkie.
– Sal Lucci
Best Album to Finally Dye Your Hair By: Halsey – Badlands
I want to say I’ve been following Halsey since the debut of her EP last year or since she became the toast of the town at SXSW, but the truth is I initially checked her out because her name is the same as a stop on my subway line. What a funny coincidence, I thought to myself, falling face-first into the zeitgeist.
Badlands is the synthpop-backed ruminations of a woman who feels trapped, be it by imminent celebrity status, society or her own expectations of herself. The opening track, “Castle,” can be read as either a condemnation of the fame machine (she likely wrote it as her star was on the rise), or a toothy reflection on growing up as a girl in the world.
Other tracks fluctuate between similar societal/personal frustrations and often bittersweet sexual awakening, with a bit left over for knowing snark. She reckons with inner demons, her creative process, and how they may be related in “Control.” She details the thrilling awkwardness and potential for violence, even, of a young romance in “Roman Holiday.” “New Americana” is a Millennial “Teenage Wasteland.”
Yet Halsey does nothing but look ever outwards from the Badlands – she may feel trapped, but she hasn’t given up on finding her way to freedom.
– Sara Clemens
Best Digital Identity Crisis: JT The Goon – King Triton
Last year the artist Fatima Al Qadiri released Asiatisch, a concept album that used the structures and sounds of sino-grime to build a record of imaginary China as heard by Western ears. It was rife with conceptual problems. For one, sino-grime was a genre coined by critics and bloggers who heard London grime producers sampling Chinese instruments in a few tracks and decided that this was a thing. Ten years later, this thing became an object of fascination for an artist playing a zero-sum game: For all its conceptual rigor and geopolitical relevance, Asiatisch sounds like somebody who’s not Chinese making music that sounds Chinese to her.
In 2015 we have metal bands pretending to be Chinese and vaporwave acts throwing Chinese characters on their Bandcamp art, with a shared rhetoric of mystery and alienation as one-note as a Chinese neck tattoo. I’ll tell you about alienation. It’s when you can’t settle on an identity, because all of them feel wrong. That’s precisely what is wrong with King Triton. Here is a white Briton taking all the Chinese-sounding presets on the Korg Triton and using them to compose killer screwface grime. There are epic pan flutes, echoing drums, and Windows ’95 zithers dancing on a pentatonic scale. (One track is called “China Tribute.”) King Triton sounds like a digital remake of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, written in Flash and playable on Newgrounds. But its roiling synthetic basslines could have equally soundtracked an East London tower block in 2003, because this is a monumental comeback by a Slew Dem veteran, early grime’s most sonically ruthless crew.
King Triton reminds me of my total confusion. I’m an American, and I’m Chinese, and I wasn’t there, and I’m never there. Neither are these sounds, tapped out in a bedroom studio and boxed up for the internet. I shouldn’t be holding on to these floating signifiers as tightly as I am—and yet they strike such a chord.
– Ryan Kuo
Grimes – Art Angels, The Weeknd – The Beauty Behind the Madness, Faith No More – Sol Invictus, Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss, CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye, Of Monsters and Men – Beneath the Skin, Carly Rae Jepson – Emotion, King Khan & BBQ Show – Bad News Boys, Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase., The Devil Makes Three – I’m a Stranger, X_X, Prurient – Frozen Niagara Falls, Lupe Fiasco – Tetsuo & Youth, Youth Code – A Place to Stand, Laura Marling – Short Movie, Carpenter Brut – Trilogy, Foxing – Dealer, Coldplay – Head Full of Dreams, Susanne Sundfør – Ten Love Songs, Imagine Dragons – Smoke & Mirrors, Electric Eels, Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi, Fuzz – Fuzz II, Lower Dens – Escape From Evil, Jed Kurzel – Macbeth, Drake – If You’re Reading This You’re Too Late, Blackout – Blackout, Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect, Shizune – Le Voyageur Impudent, FFS – FFS, Silkie – Fractals, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, Holly Herndon – Platform, Nacho Picasso – Stoned & Dethroned, Various – Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, Scattle – Timelapse, Le Butcherettes – A Raw Youth, Ostraca – Deathless, 3rDegree – Ones & Zeros, Vol. 1, John Williams – Star Wars: The Force Awakens, “Downtown” – Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Brandi Carlile – The Firewatcher’s Daughter, Bad Bad Hats – Psychic Reader, RP Boo – Fingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints, La Luz – Weirdo Shrine, Doomtree – All Hands, Junkie XL – Mad Max: Fury Road OST, Gruesome – Savage Land, Loma Prieta – Self Portrait, echolyn – I Heard You Listening, Milk Carton Kids – Monterey, Tom Waits – Blue Valentine, George Ezra – Wanted On Voyage, 12XU, Ed & Donna – Ed & Donna, Turnover – Peripheral Vision, Beat Spacek – Modern Streets, Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down…, Damaged Bug – Cold Hot Plumes, Cradle of Filth – Hammer of the Witches, Fear Factory – Genexus, Promenade – Carpenter, John Carpenter – Lost Themes, Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, I Hate Sex – Circle Thinking, Tame Impala – Currents, Mark Ronson – Uptown Special, Jamie xx – In Colour, Leon Bridges – Coming Home, Total Punk, The Bright Light Social Hour – Space Is Still The Place, JT The Goon – King Triton, Baroness – Purple, Mindless Self Indulgence – Pink, Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave – Phantasm OST, The Innocence Mission – Hello I Feel The Same, MGLA – Exercises in Futility, Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle, IZZ – Everlasting Instant, Goner Records, In Tall Buildings – Driver, Regis – Manbait, Thee Oh Sees – Mutilator Defeated At Last, Beach Slang- The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us, Royal Thunder – Crooked Doors, Haleek Maul – Money God, Sannhet – Revisionist, Svffer – Empathist, Zombi – Shape Shift, Fall Out Boy – American Beauty/American Psycho, Deafheaven – New Bermuda, Thee Tsunamis, Swervedriver – I Wasn’t Born To Lose You, Jlin – Dark Energy, Christian Mistress – To Your Death, Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material, Czarface – Every Hero Needs a Villain, Torres – Sprinter, Joanna Newsom – Divers, Chalmers – All The Songs Sung Wrong, Various Artists – Kung Fury (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), Best Coast – California Nights, Chrome Reverse, On an On – And the Wave Has Two Sides, Visionist – Safe, Eagles of Death Metal – Zipper Down, Ecstatic Vision – Sonic Praise, Jgivens – Fly Exam, Lightning Bolt – Fantasy Empire, Too Many Zooz – F Note, Bully – Feels Like, Elle King – Love Stuff, Culture Development – „????? ???? ?????????.?.?.?“, Adele – 25, Deerhunter – Fading Frontier, Kode9 – Nothing, High on Fire – Luminiferous, Obsequiae – Aria Of Vernal Tombs, Vhöl – Deeper Than Sky, Royal Headache – High, Myrkur – M, Ruby the Hatchet – Valley of the Snake, Krallice – Ygg Huur, Rachel Grimes – The Clearing, Horrendous – Anareta, Kool Keith – Time? Astonishing, Wildhoney- Sleep Through It, Kurt Stenzel- Jodorowsky’s Dune: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack