One of the best problems about music in 2015 is that there is way too much of it. In the digital landscape, you have access to everything — that means all sorts of old stuff you previously would have had to scour multiple record stores to find, and it means a dizzying amount of new music and young artists pop up each year now. It’s a lot to dig through, sure, and there’s a concern for missing out on great stuff, especially in a year like this one, where narrowing 2015’s best music down to 50 albums proved particularly difficult. If you have an insatiable appetite for quality music made across genres, there’s never been a better time to be alive.
Of course, there are exceptions. Noise that clutters up the landscape. Who-asked-for-this oddities that find their way out into that big, messy collection of music spreading amorphously across the internet. If there’s a ton of music, inevitably some of it’s going to be not-great. Some might even be actively bad! But what we’re talking about today isn’t necessarily music that was made by musicians in earnest, if less-than-adept, ways. We’re talking about the unnecessary albums, the albums that are callous cash-ins or blatant vanity projects or the kind of works that leave you wondering: Who is this made for? Who will legitimately care about this? Who will listen to this more than once? Let alone the fact that this one time in question was when you were idly sitting around with your roommates and said, “Hey, have you heard this weird thing Jeff Bridges did where he hums a lot?”, meaning from the start your sole listening experience was more perplexed amusement than legitimate musical curiosity. The choices on this list range from albums whose existence doesn’t make sense for one reason or another, to albums whose existence seems purely built on some cobbled-together digital fever-dream. (We’re looking at you, Lil BUB.) The list that follows is loosely ranked, from forgivably quirky distractions, to cynical money grabs, to the most egregious “what the shit?” releases.
10. Jon Benjamin – Well, I Should Have…*
The asterisk in the title of H. Jon Benjamin’s, uh, jazz album (he’s also billed as Jon Benjamin – Jazz Daredevil), finishes a thought: “Well, I should have…learned how to play the piano.” The entire conceit of the album is that Benjamin plays piano badly over jazz music. It starts with a skit in which Benjamin calls up a hotline trying to sell his soul to the devil, then has to go meet with Aziz Ansari, who is the devil here, who turns down Benjamin’s offer, scoffing at the fact that Benjamin is trying to sell his soul without having played music enough to earn selling his soul in order to become a brilliant and immortal musician. Four of the remaining seven songs are “I Can’t Play Piano” Pts. 1-4. Look, Jon Benjamin is the man, because he’s the voice of Archer on Archer; he also had a great guest role on Ansari’s new Netflix show Master Of None this year. And, yes, strictly speaking this is probably more of a comedy album than a jazz album. Where the “unnecessary” element comes in is that this might’ve worked better as some kind of online short than an album you’re actually supposed to spend money on and, I guess, listen to now and then? Even so, Benjamin’s great, and this is funny even when it’s pointless, so I’m going to upgrade this to, “Sure, unnecessary, but also welcome.”
9. Jeff Bridges – Sleeping Tapes
Sleeping Tapes would register way higher on the “what the shit?” scale if it wasn’t for the fact that this is Jeff Bridges, which automatically makes the whole thing endearing. But don’t get me wrong, the whole concept here is still plenty “what the shit?” Here’s a spoken-word/meditation album, led by out-of-time interstellar stoner cowboy Jeff Bridges, that, supposedly, is designed to help you fall asleep. There are ambient synths, and musings from Bridges like “Makes you wish you had feathers, huh? If you want, we could pretend to be crows. No? Okay, okay.” He hums, he rambles. Being a person way on the sleep-deprived end of the spectrum, I’m able to to fall asleep just about anywhere, anytime, and I’m not sure Sleeping Tapes would really help even if I couldn’t, because I find it too hilarious. As inherently silly as a lot of it is, though, it’s hard to fault Bridges for anything here. The proceeds go to charity. It’s entertaining, in an out-there kind of way that probably only works for one or two listens. One way or another, Bridges seems to be one of the most genuine celebrities out there. Like Jon Benjamin’s tongue-in-cheek jazz exodus, Sleeping Tapes has something redeeming, as far as goofy nonsense celebrity projects go. It’s fun, or funny, or something. This is the Dude we’re talking about, and Jeff Bridges has long since earned a lifetime free pass to do whatever goofy nonsense he wants. But let’s be real: the album only exists to make a Squarespace commercial.
8. Circles Around The Sun – Interludes For The Dead
Circles Around The Sun isn’t a band, per se. It’s the project yielded from a two-day jam session led by Neal Casal (a former member of Ryan Adams’ onetime backing band the Cardinals and guitarist for the Chris Robinson Brotherhood), for the express purpose of creating intermission music for the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well 50th anniversary/would-be goodbye shows this past summer. There are some nice things about this, from Casal’s excitement over being able to contribute something to the world of the Dead, to the fact that some of the music makes for solid background listening. But, as far as an album release goes: What we’re talking about here is an official release for music that was played during the intermission at a Dead show. Which, essentially, means this is an official release for something that was specifically intended as background music in a stadium, despite everyone’s best efforts to treat this as some kind of special, standalone project. That is, let’s say, a little excessive. Also, one of the songs is called “Hallucinate A Solution,” and that just sounds like self-parody.
7. Montage Of Heck: The Home Recordings
Even when an album like this comes out of an authorized film on the life of Kurt Cobain, it’s easy to be suspicious. Any time a musician dies young and becomes cemented as a voice of their generation, the artist “too pure for this world” or whatever, there’s still a lot of money to be made. Look at how there’s still new Jimi Hendrix releases. The people behind Montage Of Heck seem genuine and invested, but it’s hard to walk away from this thing without feeling a bit cynical. We’re at the point where all that’s left is mining a bunch of demoes that amount to really, really rough home recordings of songs we know, and oddball experiments — and then to have it marketed, more or less, as some lost Cobain solo album. People will tell you these kinds of releases reveal some tender inner nature of famously tortured artists, or they’ll act like what we’re hearing is some beautiful exposure of a genius at work. Look, let’s be honest here: A lot of Montage Of Heck is actively unpleasant to listen to. It’s not the kind of thing 99.9 percent of people would pay attention to if it didn’t have Cobain’s name attached. This might go beyond unnecessary and into the realm of bordering on poor taste: one more example of someone somewhere continuing to milk an artist’s legacy decades after they’re gone.
6. Pope Francis – Wake Up!
When I spoke to Titus Andronicus’ Patrick Stickles about 2015’s big stories, we touched on the Pope’s purported “rock album.” “Are there teenagers walking around bumping the Pope’s CD? Is the Pope’s CD an effective conversion tool to young people?” Stickles asked. “Are there people spinning the Pope’s CD that thought that Catholicism was wack yesterday and now think that it’s awesome? Probably not, right? I don’t know who it’s for.” Now, the idea of the Pope releasing an album does make some kind of sense — there are lots of Catholics who would probably really enjoy that. It’s more a matter that this was the Pope releasing a “rock album,” in which case Stickles summed it all up pretty succinctly. Neither of us had heard Wake Up! when we had that conversation, and upon listening, I’m a little confused why it’s billed as a rock album, exactly. True, as reported, there are some prog elements, including a synth line in the very beginning that’s halfway reminiscent of Pink Floyd. Much of the rest of Wake Up! sounds like church music mixed with slickly produced New Age and world music, which is actually about what I’d expect from an album by the Pope, and I guess could loosely be considered proggy? There are definitely some rock moments, though, namely “Wake Up! Go! Go! Forward!,” and that stuff is on such a rift-in-time-and-space level that it definitely makes the whole experience of Wake Up! a head-scratcher, especially when the song’s latter minute shifts into some kind of mall-rock as sung in Latin. Sidenote: Who are the session musicians who played on this? That must be a really weird call to receive, someone asking you to play on the Pope’s album.
5. Seth MacFarlane – No One Ever Tells You
Seth MacFarlane is the creator of Family Guy, which means he’s responsible for some of the most juvenile and crass jokes to have been in frequent rotation in my high school friend group. He’s the man behind American Dad!, The Cleveland Show, Ted, and Ted 2. And despite Family Guy’s admirable willingness to take shots at everyone and everything, to piss off just about anyone in America, none of this is exactly what you’d call highbrow stuff. Which makes it all the more perplexing when you find out that, in real life, MacFarlane has a passion for big band and traditional vocal pop music from the mid-20th century. Like, to the point that he’s actually trained in — and, it seems, adept in — the tradition established in the long shadow of the Rat Pack and all those other classic American characters. No One Ever Tells You is the third album in this form by the guy whose day job involves copious vomit and fart jokes. More power to him for doing something he loves and embracing a side gig that is so wildly at odds with the climate of the times, or with any other creative work he’s involved in. But, man, the cognitive dissonance of MacFarlane moonlighting as a Sinatra acolyte is just a bit too much for me to handle.
4. Lil BUB – Science & Magic
When I was kid in the ’90s, 2015 still felt like the future. I remember people being like, “We’ll have a settlement on the moon when you’re 30,” which may have been a far-fetched thing to say, but it kinda seemed possible, you know? Well, the future’s here, and we have this incredible thing called the internet, through which we make cats celebrities. Amidst all the detritus, there are nice things here: Lil BUB is a cute cat, and her owner, Mike Bridavsky, has used her prominence for good causes like animal rescue groups. I’ve got nothing against Bridavsky or his cat, but the whole apparatus of these things, in general, feels like something out of a satirical novel from the late 20th century, predicting the enlightened way we live now. There has already been a host of Lil BUB media and merchandise, and 2015 brought us Lil BUB’s debut album Science & Magic, which is actually a bunch of video game music made by Bridavsky and Lil BUB’s catsitter, but, you know, we’re all going to act like it’s by the cat. Can you imagine being a young band trying to get a record contract, and Lil BUB nudged you out of the running? To quote YACHT and borrow the title of another 2015 release: I thought the future would be cooler.
3. Black YO)))GA – Asanas Ritual, Vol. 1
I can’t keep up with all the borders and permutations within the intricate subgenre web that is the metal world, so I’m briefly turning this over to our resident metal expert, Michael Nelson, whose informal feelings on Black YO)))GA are: “This is ultra-wack because you could just listen to legitimate boring-ass drone metal in your yoga class instead of this warmed-over muzak trash.” As the description on Black YO)))GA’s website reads, the idea is to have “vinyasa style yoga set to drone, noise, stoner metal, ambient, industrial, space doom, and other traditional meditation music.” (Sidenote: Do you spend time thinking about the universe? I read about space all the time, and regardless of what they connote the words “space” and “doom” together do not strike me as relaxing or meditative, ever.) Maybe this is exactly what you’re looking for, and if so, that’s great! But my guess is that there aren’t a lot of you?
2. John Malkvoich – Like A Puppet Show
There are a few albums on here that could be deemed celebrity vanity projects, but out of all of them, John Malkovich’s Like A Puppet Show has to be the most absolutely batshit option. Released on Record Store Day, the project is, basically: John Malkovich read Plato’s Cave Allegory over some music, and then sent it around to be remixed. And the list of people he got is pretty insane, ranging from Ric Ocasek to OMD to Yoko Ono to Chris Stein (of Blondie) to Dolore O’Riordan (of the Cranberries) to Efterklang. At least in the instance of the Ocasek remix, the results are very creepy, and still pretentious. Like, what is the overall philosophical point of something like this? Is there one? Sure, the Cave Allegory still has plenty of resonance all these centuries later, but I’m not sure what Like A Puppet Show is supposed to be doing with it necessarily. This is apparently the first endeavor in what, if we’re all exceedingly lucky, will become a series of collaborations between Malkovich and Sandro (a photographer) and producer Eric Alexandrakis. Man, time to get excited!
1. Rockabye Baby!: Lullaby Renditions Of Sublime
I don’t have children myself, but I have a vivid memory from when my cousins were little: The music sold for babies is often terrible. Like, put-you-in-an-insane-asylum terrible. My guess is that anyone who works in the music industry in any capacity is going to be like, “Oh, no, I’m just going to play my little kid this sunny Beatles song or this Taylor Swift jam and sidestep all that” and then, somehow, you still wind up staring into the abyss of hearing nursery rhymes for what feels like some kind of eternal purgatory. Maybe the Rockabye Baby! series could provide some kind of moderate reprieve? I don’t know. At least you could hear xylophone renditions of the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac and Elton John and remember what it used to be like when you were allowed to listen to real songs. All I’m left with after being confronted with Rockabye Baby!‘s Sublime installment is a series of unanswerable questions. Is it really a good idea to have children? Is playing your newborn child lullaby renditions of Sublime music tantamount to child abuse? What did I do to my Stereogum colleagues that they made me listen to this? Will they come visit me when I have a nervous breakdown because of it? Is there any meaning in the universe? At all? I need to go back to Jeff Bridges now. Maybe Sleeping Tapes can assuage the deep existential crisis that Lullaby Renditions Of Sublime has brought upon me.