The best music of 2015
When describing the music of Los Angeles, the adjectives “dense” and “heady” might not seem like natural first choices, but two of my best-of album picks for 2015 certainly reflect those descriptions in what is now a particularly fertile time for the scene.
L.A. collaborations melding elements of jazz and hip-hop resulted in both The Epic, from saxophonist/composer Kamasi Washington (pictured above), and what is probably the best overall album of the year in Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly.
This year, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the homecoming concert of Washington and the West Coast Get Down, straight off of their world tour, at Club Nokia. Because it was a home gig, Washington was able to include an eight-piece string section and eight-voice choir. Add that to a four-piece horn frontline, two keyboardists, two brilliant bassists and two equally brilliant drummers, and the night turned out to be a formidable, near exhausting, three-hour experience. (See photos here.)
Imagine the spiritual thrust of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, multiplied by 10, and you have a pretty good idea of the immensity of Washington's artistry. I attribute some of it to youthful energy—and the overall sprawl could use a bit of focus—but there's no doubting the importance of The Epic as a mind-blowing statement piece.
Washington and others—including the terrific producer-musician Terrace Martin, who guested the night of the Club Nokia show—help make Lamar's album more than “just” a rap record. The added musical elements helped give heft to Lamar's statement that, dammit, #BlackLivesMatter—and, in light of America's exposed racism, they matter immensely. And if you need more proof, check out the “Alright” video, along with Martin's remix.
But I'm not turning my back on the traditional, more gentle, SoCal pop-rock sound, and Bethany Costentino made a luxurious ode to the Golden State as her musical alter ego Best Coast on the groovy vibes of California Nights.
All the other music featured on 2015’s list gave me great pleasure as well: both Screaming Females' new album and two-night stint in Honolulu's Chinatown, which brought out the underground habitués in force; the surprise of the androgynous hip-hop-istry Shamir Bailey; the controlled electronic experimentation of Holly Herndon, and the original Broadway cast recording of Hamilton, which every red-blooded American musical theater enthusiast and hip-hop head should listen to. A fascinating part of our country's history was never presented as captivatingly as this. And the man behind it, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a stone genius (he's got the MacArthur Fellowship to prove it).
Another stone genius, and a MacArthur Fellow from last year, is composer-saxophonist Steve Coleman, who I also had the pleasure of seeing play with his excellent Five Elements band as part of a three-week residency at L.A.'s Blue Whale jazz space in Little Tokyo. Hawaii-born Nate Chinen, jazz writer for the New York Times, described what is his top album of 2015 as having music, “light and lithe, with a slithery sense of groove,” which pretty much describes Coleman's spontaneous composition in concert as well.
Best Albums, 2015
The Epic – Kamasi Washington
To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
California Nights – Best Coast
Rose Mountain – Screaming Females
Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett
Hamilton – Original Broadway Cast Recording
Synovial Joints – Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance
Ratchet – Shamir
Platform – Holly Herndon
No Cities to Love – Sleater-Kinney
Depression Cherry – Beach House
I Don't Like S---, I Don't Go Outside – Earl Sweatshirt
Ones and Sixes – Low
DS2 – Future
Ego Death – The Internet
Break Stuff – Vijay Iver Trio
Summertime '06 – Vince Staples
Have You in My Wilderness – Julia Holter
Death Magic – Health
Best Singles, 2015
“The Blade” – Ashley Monroe
“I Know There's Gonna (Good Times)” – Jamie xx ft. Young Thug & Popcaan
“No Sleeep” – Janet Jackson
“The Way” – Kehlani ft. Chance the Rapper
“Sprinter” – Torres
“Them Changes” – Thundercat
“Coffee” – Miguel
“Younger” – Seinabo Sey
“Leave a Trace” – CHVRCHES
And, finally, from Adele's monster 25, her collaboration with Bruno Mars, “All I Ask”