2015 In Review

Not On Spotify: 10 Great Off-The-Grid, Unofficial, Or Self-Released Albums Of 2015

If you believe everything you read, the music industry was “saved” not once but three times in 2015 — first by Taylor Swift, then by Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, and once more by Adele. Problem solved, right?

Hold on, lemme just check here … yep, the music industry is still a mess.

It’s not Taylor’s fault — the situation is simply too dire for one artist to fix alone. In just over a decade, the revenues created by selling music in the U.S. were cut in half. The narrative is all too familiar by now: Thanks to artificial scarcity and a centralized, one-dimensional production chain, sales of absurdly expensive, purposefully fragile, and frequently unlistenable compact discs reached their peak. Then after the internet came along to disrupt the economy/democratize production/introduce “goatse” to your mom, those revenues deflated, as bubbles inevitably do.

And yet, even by the standards of your average digitally driven scorched-earth decline, the cliff atop which the music business once sat was astoundingly high — and its fall astoundingly steep. So dramatic was this disruption that I imagine many in the industry gazing upon what Uber did to the taxi economy with something like envy. Because while a cab company owner can at least retire early, safe in the knowledge that the world simply moved on from charmingly corrupt old-world Medallion systems and yellow-checkered color schemes, “music” — as long as you leave the word “industry” off the end of it — hasn’t imploded at all. In a narrative that’s just as important as the music industry’s downfall, music itself has never been bigger.

From production to consumption to availability, music has exploded thanks to a series of innovations like Napster, iTunes, BitTorrent, and Spotify. And though the industry’s financial outlook is still fuzzy, one thing is certain: No matter who ultimately “wins” the digital music wars — contenders include Spotify, Apple, YouTube, and Pandora — streaming music as the world’s dominant listening method is poised to last far longer than the various ruling periods of MP3s, CDs, and probably even vinyl records. That of course means an end to the sustained viability of physical music products — but the industry and its patrons have known that for a while. The more significant and unique feature offered by streaming platforms versus services like iTunes or BitTorrent — particularly for that small sliver of youth consumers straddling the smeared line between Gen-Xera and Millennials and for whom one’s iPod library was nothing short of a digital representation of their identity — music in 2015 need no longer take up virtual space either.

Back when “the cloud” was only a meteorological phenomenon, megabytes of storage — on hard drives, on computers, on smartphones — were expensive but necessary accessories at least as crucial to serious music enthusiasts as a decent set of headphones. Upon unwrapping a shiny new 128 GB iPod, the potential and possibilities for one’s music library felt limited only by a listener’s hunger and imagination. But it was never long before we had to start erasing last year’s chill-wave to make room for this year’s witch-gaze or goddess-house or whatever other fresh micro-genre crept into our collective consciousness. For the most passionately obsessed collectors, these digital storage constraints still imposed a tiny layer of scarcity to our music consumption habits, thus preserving an intrinsic measure of value to the music we owned, which artists and fans had for decades taken for granted.

Streaming changed all that. With tens of millions of albums floating up in the digital ethers operated by Spotify and Apple, just waiting to be plucked with a few taps of our smartphones or keyboards, this idea of scarcity is as dead and outdated as the telegram. In many ways, this overwhelming overabundance of sound is the best thing that’s ever happened to music. Even cranky punks like Steve Albini agree with that notion. Access to great music is no longer a luxury reserved for those fortunate enough to have disposable cash and time. Income inequality in America is still a very real problem, but there’s at least one intellectual privilege that today is effectively available to anyone with an Internet connection: consuming good music. And unlike Silicon Valley’s disruption of the film, television, and publishing industries, which still generate significant income through Netflix subscriptions and Amazon ebook sales, some of the biggest and earliest music streaming services never bothered to make even the most obsessed enthusiasts pay for music, making it the only space that’s lived up to the internet’s promise of democratizing everything under the sun.

But despite the joys of having free, unlimited access to the better part of recorded music history on any computer — the same surfeit of sound is available on Spotify’s mobile offering for just $9.99 a month — it’s worth considering what fans have lost as scarcity continues to disappear from the calculus of music consumption.

For instance, if you were among the few hundred people in 1967 or 1996 who bought an original pressing of The Velvet Underground & Nico or If You’re Feeling Sinister around the time they were released, it probably meant you were either extraordinarily in-the-know, extraordinarily lucky, or both. But today, particularly for listeners whose tastes tend to align with the hipster-crit consensus, music collection and appreciation can be boiled down to a simple and cold mathematical proof: Step One, check out reviews of new albums/tracks online; Step Two, cross-reference against Spotify; Step Three, repeat until your roommate/partner/parent forces you to go outside. It might come as a shock to the squarest amongst your family and friends, but the fact that you know “all the cool bands” isn’t rocket science or Walter White-caliber meth-making. It’s like cooking ramen in the bathroom.

This equation usually only fails when the artist-variable is among a handful of acts like Taylor Swift and Drag City’s stable of talent who have forsaken Spotify because it has helped perpetuate — and arguably exacerbate — the decades-old tradition of “screwing over musicians.” But otherwise it’s an effective shortcut to achieving the minimum viable credibility needed to talk shop amongst the true believers of any subculture. Half an afternoon and an unlimited data plan are all you need to become a convincing “indie rock kid” or “hip-hop enthusiast” or “metalhead.” In the world wrought by Spotify and its streaming peers, to say you’ve heard or heard of or are a fan of any given artist or artistic movement is no longer remotely notable or interesting, let alone impressive. Even if you saw the band live, so what? Any band with even a modicum of buzz is invited to play on the increasingly homogenized and exhaustive festival circuit. Over the past five years rarely, if ever, does a musical artifact, obscure or otherwise, require any measure of actual effort to uncover.

In short, the thrill of the hunt is gone.

Now, let’s not get confused about the reasons why the forgotten art of the hunt matters and why it’s worth eulogizing. It’s probably a good thing that even fewer people than ever before are impressed when someone boasts of being at “the first Can show in Cologne” or “the first Suicide practices in a loft in New York City” or any of the other hipster/bohemian Mad Libs included in LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge.” To suggest otherwise is one of the more obnoxious ways to betray one’s privilege in 2015.

No, the hunt matters because it can increase the value — perceived or otherwise — of a piece of art. Many of you will disagree with that, but hear me out:

A common refrain of the new music industry is that people who don’t pay for music are incapable of assigning value to it. With respect to that viewpoint, it’s not quite right. Yes, people should pay for music in some shape or form; and yes, artists deserve to be compensated for their work. But cash is only one metric for measuring and reverse-engineering value. Time, effort, physical space, and the allocation of digital resources are all currencies a listener may bring to the process of discovering or collecting music. All five — cash included — may be expended in varying amounts depending on the mechanism at work when consuming music. iTunes dispensed with “physical space” and arguably “time” as value indicators, but kept the rest. BitTorrent and Napster removed cash from the equation. But Spotify’s immensely popular streaming platform, where music is freely accessed and suspended in a digital cloud that, as far as listeners are concerned, is virtually infinite in size, exists in a state where these all of these value indicators have arguably been stripped.

For the youngest generation of listeners — the streaming generation — the only value exchanged between consumer and producer is attention. To be clear, producers and platforms that undervalue attention as a piece of currency — particularly among younger users — do so at their own peril. But a value system based solely on attention creates the lowest stakes imaginable for producer-to-consumer creative transactions, and moreover pits musicians and music platforms against not only one another but against every other item of digital content, from Instagram photos to Facebook statuses to Candy Crush.

And so in an effort to identify pockets of scarcity in a music industry dominated by a near-complete lack thereof, here are 10 of the best unofficial, self-released, or otherwise off-the-grid albums of 2015. None of them are terribly hard to find or “scarce,” per se. But as old media gatekeepers attempt to wrangle this digital explosion of music so that it once again resembles the bland, one-directional product chain of old, it’s worth celebrating artists who take control of their own distribution, independent of huge labels or streaming platforms. And all of these albums — either coincidentally or as a direct consequence of their distribution method — required greater effort to find and/or keep than it takes to hit “play” on Spotify.

NOTE: In the interest of celebrating the increasingly rare notion of scarcity in how music is consumed in 2015, no album that appeared on Spotify this year was considered for the list. That said, albums like Joanna Newsom’s Divers, despite not being on Spotify (and despite being really, really great) don’t really belong on this list because of its otherwise traditional release and the overwhelming level of publicity it received. (One could say the same of Taylor Swift’s 1989, which made headlines after she withheld it from Spotify).

01. Cindy Lee – Act Of Tenderness

Cindy Lee - Act Of Tenderness

Here’s a band that is so knowingly out-of-sync with today’s social media and digital distribution machine that its website is hosted on Geocities.

The Band Maybe Soon-To-Be Formerly Known as Viet Cong wasn’t the only act to rise up from the ashes of Calgary’s fuzzed-out art rock crew Women. While Matthew Flegel and Matthew Wallace were wooing festival crowds and collecting outraged tweets over their historically insensitive band name, Flegel’s brother Patrick launched Cindy Lee. And whatever the reasons behind Women’s choice to split up, judging by Cindy Lee’s dark, anxious Act Of Tenderness, “artistic differences” doesn’t likely rank high on that list.

Indeed, the 12 no-wave-influenced tracks here — which like the cult band This Heat strike a precarious balance between violent, immersive firestorms of noise and irresistibly catchy melodies — would not sound out of place on a collection of Viet Cong outtakes. Though to be frank, the staggeringly great songwriting and thrilling vintage-sounding production here make Viet Cong’s fine, critically acclaimed debut sound more like the B-sides collection, not the other way around. Tracks like “What I Need” sound as if someone shoved a ’60s girl group like the Shirelles through a meat grinder and served up the gristle and bone chunks that should have been thrown out. Others like “Last Train Come And Gone” graft the digestible structures and song lengths of pop music onto a musical canvas borrowed from post-rock. Elsewhere on “Operation,” Cindy Lee falls to the temptation of creating something almost like a radio hit by offering up a low-rent DIY take on the Knife’s immaculate spazz-outs.

Act Of Tenderness is the sound of someone who would and could create pop music, if only that genre’s vocabulary were more capable of saying something honest and engaging to say about today’s weird, ugly world. If Flegel had been born 50 years earlier, he would be writing hit song after hit song for vocal groups like the Crystals. In 2015, he’s created this.

Despite the fact that everyone involved showcases A-game talent, Cindy Lee only pressed a few hundred copies of Act Of Tenderness. And in a move that befits such an intimate affair, the digital version of the album can be found by accessing a special Dropbox folder.

Download it here.

02. Laddio Bolocko – Live And Unreleased 1997-2000

Laddio Bolocko - Live And Unreleased 1997-2000

This now-defunct pioneering quartet of New York ’90s noise rock offers up a valuable lesson: Always leave the recorder on and save everything. These 13 improvisational studio tracks, which along with six live cuts make up the 2015 rarities collection Live And Unreleased 1997-2000, are better than most bands’ final drafts. For newcomers to the band — considering their success was largely limited to cult status, that means almost everyone — this three-LP set, along with a DVD of live, documentary, and abstract footage that is masterfully shot and edited by Aran Tharp, offers an ear-shattering, high-decibel primer on why the band was so important.

The band’s impact was not unlike that of the Velvet Underground; smaller in scale, yes, but similarly proportioned. By that I mean, there weren’t a ton of people who heard Laddio Bolocko during the group’s dark quiet roaming reign of the city’s rock and roll fringes — but everyone who did hear them started a band. Hell, if you wandered wasted into a rock ‘n’ roll club only to hear a band that sounded like Can and Sonic Youth got into a knife fight and lit each other on fire and then lit you on fire, wouldn’t you?

Luckily, fans who missed Laddio play while they existed need not rely on their imagination alone, thanks to the DVD included in the box set. The disc is far more vital than some perfunctory extra tacked on to appeal solely to super-enthusiasts. Filmmaker Tharp accepts and embraces the challenge of capturing Laddio Bolocko’s brutally mesmerizing live performances by patching together thousands of frenzied cuts in order to replicate the disarming and disorienting sensory experience of witnessing a great punk rock show. The effect is far more visceral than what would be achieved by setting up a few cameras and letting the band work its magic. And while I wasn’t fortunate to have seen Laddio Bolocko perform in the flesh, I’ve seen a great many killer shows in my lifetime, and this footage captures that ineffable feeling convincingly:

On that note, it’s not only the scale on which the band’s influence operated that makes it different from the Velvet Underground’s. Because while many of Laddio’s concert-goers went out and started their own bands, not many of them sounded much like their inspiration. But that’s only a testament to how unique and inimitable Laddio Bolocko was during their brief lifespan.

Buy it here.

03. Lil B & Chance The Rapper – Free Based Freestyles Mixtape

Lil B & Chance The Rapper - Free Based Freestyles Mixtape

“We are making an entire piece of content from scratch,” says Chance as he kicks off “What’s Next,” the second track off of this impossibly likable mixtape made up entirely of freestyle raps. “Which is where the best things in life come from,” he continues. “The best things in life come from nothing and become something different.”

That’s an elegant summation of why rap mixtapes are some of the most impressive and enjoyable hip-hop releases on the planet, despite their “unofficial” status. While the format has evolved to the point where rappers like Drake, Future, and Chance himself take the production and promotion of these “tapes” as seriously as any other release, their real magic stems from that sense of raw, boundless creativity which, for the world’s best rappers, rushes forth like a tidal wave of words and ideas from their brain to their mouths to their SoundCloud dashboard, where it’s mainlined into the listener’s cerebral cortex. And this creativity is arguably best hatched in the context of a mixtape, where it’s untouched and uncorrupted by studio advance money and the demands and expectations that come with it.

A rapper at the top of his or her mixtape game is a thing to behold — history’s most impressive display of sustained prowess in that context might be Lil Wayne’s run in the years prior to Tha Carter III, from which the classic Dedication and Drought series were birthed. And while this entry from Lil B and Chance doesn’t reach the heights of Dedication 2 or Da Drought 3, it possesses that same uncut, unfiltered mad-scientist creativity that helped expand Wayne’s fanbase beyond the mainstream into the headphones of every rap head and indie kid with a brain in-between their earbuds.

Meanwhile, the freestyle restriction gives listeners a peek at the rappers’ stream-of-consciousness technique and process — imperfections and all. This lends a sense of intimacy to the proceedings, which is most evident on the first track, “What’s Next,” when Chicago’s Noname Gypsy drops by to stumble through a thoroughly charming verse that falls apart after her mind goes blank. She may not be the “best rapper alive” but it’s moments like hers which make Free Based Freestyles such a joy. Like the inverse of Jay and Kanye’s distantly affluent Watch The Throne, Free Based brings listeners in close, making them feel as if they are smoking joints in a basement, watching two friends rap battle at 3 AM. The fact that Lil B and Chance The Rapper just happen to be much better freestylers than anyone you know doesn’t make the record any less intimate.

Listen here.

04. Advance Base – Nephew In The Wild

Advance Base - Nephew In The Wild

To any Sun Kil Moon fans who were turned off by Mark Kozelek’s immature flame wars with lesser indie rockers, first I’d say, “Get over it.” Your favorite Beatle has probably done far worse. But second, I’d say, if you need that Midwestern sad-sack singer-songwriter itch scratched and Kozelek’s no longer your man, check out Chicago’s Owen Ashworth and his Advance Base project. Kozelek himself must have recognized Ashworth as a kindred spirit, having invited him to play Rhodes piano on 2014’s knockout Benji; Ashworth even wrote the music to the album’s sixth track, “Jim Wise.” On Nephew In The Wild, his 10th release as Advance Base since 2011, Ashworth presents 10 frozen working-class anthems, splitting the difference between Kozelek and Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan. Unlike Stevens, however, Ashworth is less interested in the details of their squalor and more concerned with the diversions his characters — pretty much all of whom are waitresses — use to escape their shitty lives, whether that means summoning Satan on the appropriately named “Summon Satan” or getting high and listening to Thin Lizzy on “Trisha Please Come Home.”

Listen here.

05. Molly Nilsson – Zenith

Molly Nilsson - Zenith

Zenith is basically the “upbeat Beach House album” I wish Beach House had actually made this year. Okay, that’s not true; I loved Thank Your Lucky Stars. Rather, Zenith is what an “upbeat Beach House album” actually sounds like, as Molly Nilsson lays her laconic Swedish vocals over a musical backdrop more indebted to the resurgence of Italo Disco embodied by acts like the Chromatics than to indie rockers like Yo La Tengo. As for the lyrics, well, “1995” is the best song ever written about how an operating system — Windows 95, to be exact — is a metaphor or life and love and everything else.

Download it here.

06. White Gzus – Stackin N Mackin, Vol. 3

White Gzus – Stackin N Mackin, Vol. 3

I’m glad to see that getting pulled over with $15,000 worth of heroin on New Year’s Day 2015 hasn’t slowed down Gerik Raglin, one half of the Chicago duo White Gzus. On the contrary, this year brought us Volumes 2 and 3 of the excellent mixtape series Stackin N Mackin. (Another advantage of the mixtape format? Release dates are never sidetracked by court dates.)

Here, Raglin and his collaborator Marek Fortineaux rap over everything from old soul songs to Beetlejuice. (Check out the so-silly-it-shouldn’t-work-but-the-fact-that-it-does-makes-it-that-much-better “SDR.” In the same vein is the way “Peeeeyyyenthouse” is enunciated over and over again on that title track.) Meanwhile, the melodic and maximalist approach to the production and the verbal dexterity of Raglin and Fortineaux might be considered a throwback when compared to the grimmer Drill delivery of some of the duo’s contemporaries in Chicago and elsewhere, like Chief Keef. At the same time, by bringing in collaborators like producer du jour Metro Boomin, White Gzus bridge the past and present more memorably than just about any other hip-hop act this year.

Listen here.

07. Wished Bone – Pseudio Recordings

Wished Bone - Pseudio Recordings

Athens, Ohio’s Wished Bone is like Joanna Newsom with twice the Appalachian street cred. Their super lo-fi debut, Psuedio Recordings, is as weird as it sounds, but there’s an undeniable sweetness and smartness to tracks like “Witty Boys Make Graves,” which balance knowing cleverness and openhearted sincerity.

Listen here.

08. Toro Y Moi – Samantha

Toro Y Moi - Samantha

Few artists have evolved as quickly and covered as much musical ground as Chaz Bundick — better known as Toro Y Moi. Starting out as one of the pioneers of the dubiously named yet surprisingly resilient chillwave movement, Bundick later incorporated the influence of house and experimental hip-hop. Meanwhile, 2015’s What For? was his most dramatic deviation yet from those chilltronica roots; its lead single, “Empty Nesters,” for instance, sounds like a straight-up Big Star song.

This impressive eclecticism has made Bundick tough to pin down. But if Samantha, the free 20-track mixtape he released over the summer, is any indication, his heart lies with the Flying Lotus- and Dilla-influenced hip-hop of Anything In Return. And in truth, Samantha is an improvement off that record, in large part because of the addition here of some phenomenal guest collaborators like Kool AD, Nosaj Thing, and Washed Out. At times, Samantha feels a bit too indebted to its influences — and frankly, I was expecting more from a track called “Stoned At The MOMA.” But elsewhere, “Room For 1zone” is a thoroughly unique mash-up of sinister trap melodies, ambient grooves, and distorted soul vocals that would serve as an optimal formula for the “Bundick sound” going forward — not that he’d ever settle on one. Meanwhile, the Washed Out collaboration “Want” reminds us that Bundick has been fucking with weird-ass R&B forever, and deserves some credit for anticipating the success of acts like FKA Twigs.

The big takeaway here is that the album’s finest moments are the ones where Bundick gets an assist from one of his semi-famous friends. I don’t mean that as a show of disrespect; the same thing could be said of Brian Eno. And indeed, adopting an “indie rock Eno” position is where I could see Bundick having his biggest impact going forward: as a gifted technician and student of innovation who makes everyone in the room better.

Listen here.

09. Kevin Gates – Murder For Hire

Kevin Gates - Murder For Hire

Years from now, Murder For Hire might be remembered as Kevin Gates’ last street mixtape before he blew up … or it could be forgotten on the pile of Southern rap also-rans. Gates, who has been working hard and recording tracks for a decade now, has been in the conversation for much of that time after the Louisiana rapper attracted the attention of Lil Wayne’s people. Now, 2016 is his do-or-die moment as Gates — on the eve of his 30th birthday — readies Islah, his official debut and his first record likely to benefit from a big marketing push by Atlantic Records.

If Islah is a hit, Murder For Hire would be a fine victory lap, offering up tracks like “Mexico” and “Khaza,” which filter the modern mainstream incarnation of trap through Gates’ unique voice and persona, which is at turns fiercely aggressive and sharply funny.

“I suffer from depression, so I record everyday,” Gates told Mass Appeal. “I try to record everyday, and the reason I’m not really in a happy mood right now is because I haven’t recorded since last night.”

In other words, regardless of how 2016 shakes out for Gates, he’s not going anywhere.

Listen here.

10. Heidecker & Wood – Good As Is

Heidecker & Wood - Good As Is

You didn’t ask for them, but here they are: 56 “unwanted songs” that celebrate everything great and terrible about ’70s radio rock. Good As Is isn’t as flat-out hilarious as, say, Heidecker’s “pee-freak” project, the Yellow River Boys. But songs like “Angry With You” exist where humor and sincerity overlap; a place that, 40 years ago, was routinely explored by popular artists like Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman. Blame Ween, blame Weird Al Yankovic, but at some point in the ’90s, it stopped being cool for musicians to be funny. If you were funny, you were “joke rock” — which meant you were worthy of dismissal.

This might be changing, however — witness the success this year of albums by Colleen Green, Courtney Barnett, and Jim O’Rourke, three artists who by any reasonable measure are pretty funny. And while Good As Is doesn’t reach the heights of those albums, it too is fighting the good fight. Oh, and because you didn’t really think a label in 2015 would pay to release and promote a 56-track soft rock album, the duo chose to release Good As Is as a $1 BitTorrent download. That’s less than 2 cents per song! What are you waiting for?

Download it here.