I read an essay this year by Susan Sontag called “Notes on Camp,” in which she describes why art can be so bad that it’s good. She says that, in all great artists, we look for dreamers with wild ambition, passion for the artform and self-love. Sometimes, these ambitions fail so hard that the work becomes camp, which is loveable anyway. Otherwise, if it succeeds, then it is just true art.
Since I read the essay, I’ve realized that I really just look for these endearing qualities in my favorite albums. Great albums inspire me to dream big. Great albums inspire me to become a better person with their unabashed optimism. I think that each of these five albums is just that inspiring, and I will be listening to them for years and years — always with the same sense of exhilaration and wonder. Here are my personal faves of 2015.
- Rae Sremmurd — Sremmlife
While some rappers spend months in the studio to craft hooks this catchy and hilarious, Rae Sremmurd just tosses them out, frivolously, like the duo is making it rain at the strip club. “Lit like bic”? What the hell does that even mean, right? But it’s genius! The alliteration is crazy memorable.
But I’d be doing the album a major disservice if I just called it a party album, even though it is loads of fun. After all, this album is called SremmLIFE! Amid the silly dancing and the champagne splashing, Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy have really given us wise words to live by. “Unlock the swag,” for instance, is my new mantra. I’m not joking when I say this is the most enjoyable album I listened to this year.
- Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment — Surf
I just read the Wikipedia article on Mike Nichols, the director of “The Graduate,” who apparently had this masterful ability to draw the best performances out of actors and actresses. It didn’t matter if they were newcomers such as Dustin Hoffman or glamorous celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor who were way more experienced than Nichols was. The director just really knew how to make the set a safe, creative space for his performers.
This description of Nichols is exactly how I feel about Donnie Trumpet. I imagine that in the studio, Mr. Trumpet had a radiant positivity that inspired every performer. Every cameo appearance is just such a dazzling surprise. I never expected to hear Quavo — the dude from Migos — to sing with AutoTune over sunny neo-soul, but it works! And I don’t know who Jamila Woods is, but her hook on “Sunday Candy” melts my heart. This album makes me believe that anyone can wow you if you give them the chance. That’s the kind of message that the kids need to hear.
- Grimes — Art Angels
Sorry, but here’s another cinematic reference! Grimes reminds me of the French auteur Jean-Luc Godard, a famous leader of the French New Wave movement. Godard made ultra-challenging art cinema that had the erratic heartbeat of jazz in its experimentation. Yet, he was an utter champion of film as a populist art, celebrating the trashiest Westerns, gangster flicks and rom-coms.
Grimes is that same kind of rare artist who can take her unabashed passion for the low-brow and transmute it into gold. She channels 2000s power-pop, sci-fi fantasies and her love of Taylor Swift through a tunnel of her technicolor, digital hallucinations. What emerges contains so many contradictions. “Flesh without Blood” is dance-inducing and accessible, but the enveloping sound is anarchic and surreal. Songs such as “SCREAM” and “Venus Fly” burst with a primordial energy, but they’re futuristic in their utopian, feminist vision.
In 30 years, this is the kind of pop that they’ll be playing on the intergalactic radio. Someone get me a time machine, because I don’t want to wait 30 years.
- Miguel — Wildheart
It’s a strange comparison, but Miguel’s trajectory as an artist has been uncannily similar to that of Grimes. On their previous albums, both singers had more of a hallucinatory, ethereal presence — fading into the woozy, digital cloud. Now, just like Grimes, Miguel insists that his presence is heard, and he pushes his way out of the clouds — into the sun — with thunderous stadium rock that sounds like it’s from the future. The difference here is that Miguel prophecies a very, very sexy future — the kind where everyone is a 10/10 with the abs of Miguel. Sign me the fuck up!
Miguel is such a talented craftsmen when it comes to atmosphere. On a hit single like “Coffee,” the synths twinkle, the bass rumbles softly and his croon is as delicate as a silk gown. It’s all so intimate. Yet, when he piles it all together, the result is somehow expansive and immersive. It’s as if you and Miguel woke up on another planet with no other life forms, such that the entire world were your bedroom. Once again, sign me the fuck up.
- Young Thug — Barter 6 / Slime Season / Slime Season 2 / Everything that he put out this year
Young Thug keeps things weird — his lyrics are steeped in riddles. Even when you can actually make out what he’s saying — which is a legendary feat on its own — you end up hearing something like, “Chuck E. Cheese, I’m about pizza and my Rol’ on.” Maybe pizza is a metaphor? You stay perplexed, trying to decode it for years, as if it were a Zen riddle.
But his general Internet presence has been even more inscrutable. Despite his massive hype and potential for commercial success, Thugger has yet to release an official studio album. Instead, in 2015, he dropped three mixtapes and more than 100 leaked, unpolished tracks, which gushed over the Internet underground, trampling over the authority of establishments such as Spotify and Apple Radio.
Did he mean for this to happen? We don’t know. Some tracks contained verses by Rich Homie Quan, but the two rappers were feuding at the time. Were these gems recorded after a reunion? Or are they tracks from before their falling out? With these leaks, Young Thug seemed to exist beyond our dimension, outside of our moment in time. It’s the kind of sorcery that can only be performed on the Internet.
Grimes and Miguel have decided to emerge from the digital cloud, but Young Thug seems content in staying shrouded in the haze — keeping our world alive with magic and mystery. He is like some lonely, hip-hop wizard who is the last one smoking at a hookah bar, stoking the embers until they’ve lost their very last glow.
Contact Jason Chen at [email protected].