1. Since it’s the end of the year, I’m going to hit you with a couple lists here. Happy Holidays to the real heroes of the season: the music journalists furiously crafting lists in their workshops*.
Anyways, first here’s a list of the five best concerts I saw in 2015. I saw a bunch of stuff this year, but these five were the best:
5. Rae Sremmurd at Macalaster College: I was visiting some friends in Minneapolis in April, when I was notified via Twitter (shouts to @hellakyra) that Rae Sremmurd were playing the spring concert at Macalaster College in St. Paul. It was a completely bizarre place to see them: the show was literally under a tent in a field on the campus. The show was sloppy—I don’t think Swae Lee’s mic was on for 90% of it—and almost got shut down like 10 times because the crowd was so turnt and was pushing down barricades. But it was a perfect distillation of the charm of these dudes. You’re not going for verbal gymnastics; you’re going for the equivalent of rap PCP.
4. Sturgill Simpson at Majestic Theatre: There’s not much to say here except that it turns out going to see Sturgill Simpson play his songs back at you at high volumes with added guitar solos is a truly tight experience.
3. Bon Iver at Eaux Claires Fest: This came during the last night of Justin Vernon’s debut Eaux Claires Fest, his boutique fest in his hometown. This was special for that reason, but also because he did two new songs, and I got to hear Bon Iver play in the woods. Not to mention that despite 1. Living downstate from him the entire time he’s been a thing and 2. Having family that sees him shopping in Eau Claire, this was the first time I saw him live. I got caught in my feelings during this entire set.
2. Old Dominion at the Sett: This one was special because I got to see Old Dominion, a band I think is going to be capital H Huge in country music in the next 2-3 years, play a free show on the campus at UW-Madison. They were booked before their “Break Up With Him” became the number one country song in America, and they could have probably sold out one of the smaller theaters in Madison. Instead, they ripped through a 90 minute set of their entire debut album, some pre-album singles, and a bunch of the songs they’ve written for other people (Sam Hunt, Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley) to a bunch of college kids (and me).
1. Spooky Black at Eaux Claires Fest: I think I have a different perception of what a “good” concert is than most people: 85 percent of the time, I’m looking for a spectacle that makes me like the performer more more than I am looking to be wowed by someone playing songs I already love. This was firmly in the spectacle spectrum: Spooky never played any of the songs anyone who knows him passingly would know, and he spent the last song screaming “hot dogs” into the mike while his band played behind him. It was an outright “fuck off” to his internet stardom. I loved it. But part of that might be that I literally fainted from heat stroke an hour before his set.
*- Studio apartments
2. The dead of November/December, aka the Cuffing Season playoffs, isn’t necessarily the best time to drop sensual R&B albums, but damn if there aren’t two really great recent ones. The first is Ty Dolla $ign’s Free TC, an album that features Babyface, Jagged Edge, Future, Trey Songz, E-40 and Kendrick Lamar and Brandy (those two are on the same track!). Ty paid $60,000 of his own money to put real string arrangements on the album, and damn it shows: this thing is a plush, great album.
The other is the long-gestating (it’s had more release dates than Detox I think) album from Jeremih, Late Nights. Ostensibly the studio version of his classic 2012 mixtape Late Nights with Jeremih, Late Nights was supposed to be bolstered upon release by “Don’t Tell ‘Em,” his 2014 smash. That song is still here, but it’s surrounded by tons of material that does justice to the mixtape; “Planez,” J. Cole’s insidious, terrible verse aside, is fantastic, but the highlight here is closer “Paradise,” a nearly a capella ballad that will soundtrack many a post hookup walk homes this winter season.
3. Without much foreplay, here’s my five favorite songs from 2015:
5. “Lava” from short film Lava: I have only been able to listen to this song three times this year, and all three times left me a blubbering mess. Call it emotionally manipulative if you want, but the best songs are supposed to emotionally manipulate you. I’m not ashamed to admit it: this song about a lonely volcano nearly missing his one shot at love before finding his volcano fucked me up worse than any other song in 2015.
4. There are few tropes in music writing I hate more than the “this guy is saving REAL country music,” but I was still intrigued enough by this profile of Sam Morrow in LA Weekly to check him out, and I’m glad I did. I’m still only scratching the surface of Morrow’s There Is No Map, but I can wholeheartedly endorse it here. It’s raw, it’s heartfelt, it’s world weary, and it sounds like 1971.
5. I was going to dedicate this space to 5 underrated albums from 2015, but instead, I’m going to dedicate it to only one: my favorite album from 2015, Heems’ Eat Pray Thug. It’s been my pick for best of the year since it came out in March, and nothing that has come out since has come close to dislodging it from my top spot. It’s conscious rap that makes you question your conscience. It’s an album that tackles the fallacy of a post-race America, it’s an album that is about 9/11, it’s an album that even takes time for some pop. It’s hip-hop, it’s a political pamphlet, it’s a novel, it’s #sad and #dejected rap, and it’s powerful. It’s Heems through and through.
Heems is never going to get the appreciation from the critical apparatus that he deserves. It’s been that way since 2011, and it’s because he and Kool AD, when they were in Das Racist, made jokes to temper their cultural criticism (I also wonder how much calling out Pitchfork for not being able to tell them apart during a review for a mixtape where they joke no one can tell them apart impacted the reception of their work since). Once Heems became more concerned with telling his truth—the drug addiction, the racism, the feeling hopeless in a hopeless place—no one wanted anything but the jokes. All comedians go through it when they try to be taken seriously; but when you can listen to something like “Patriot Act” and only come away with a weak Rick Ross comparison, you can’t help but feel like the deck is stacked against Heems in an unfair way.
So, my parting shot for this column in 2015 is that you need to go listen to Eat Pray Thug. It’s the best album of 2015. And not just the best one you didn’t listen to.
Andrew Winistorfer is VMP’s Classics & Country Director, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Philadelphia International Records, The Story of Quincy Jones, The Story of Impulse and the VMP Classics release of Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying, and executive produced the VMP Anthology The Story of Vanguard. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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