Although it remains part of today's musical lexicon, the term"mixtape" has a substantially different meaning than it did back when the record industry was carrying on its "Home Taping Is Killing Music" campaign.
In retrospect, the home recording phenom was more quaint than dangerous, with lovelorn teenagers spending hours and hours sequencing songs on cassettes to bestow upon the objects of their affection. But by 1993, compact discs were killing cassette tapes, while paving the way for digital dissemination on a scale scarcely imaginable during the analog era.
Today's mixtapes do qualify as mixes; they're just online instead of on tape. Mostly, they're the province of deejays who are looking to show off their artistic and technical prowess, or hip-hop artists who want to keep their names out there between properly produced releases.
So consider the following a playlist assembled in the spirit of those early homemade mixtapes. Unlike most year-end "Best-Ofs," it doesn't aim to capture the popular or critical zeitgeist; there are plenty of other places to go for that. And given the fact that some 100,000 albums and singles are released annually, it's a pretty big stretch to imagine that anyone has heard enough of them to sort out which are the "best."
Instead, what follows is a diverse array of exceptional, if largely overlooked, tracks that deserve far more attention than they got in 2015. Only one of the artists is on a major label; few have been at it for more than a couple albums.
You’ll also find videos for each of these tracks below. Give them a listen. You won’t be killing the music industry any more than the rest of us already have.
- Bridget Bennett
- Twin Peaks
1. Twin Peaks, "Telephone" (Grand Jury)
A Chicago band who first got together as high-school students in 2009, Twin Peaks released their third album, Wild Onion, in early August, with the standout track "Telephone" earning a rousing reception at this year's SXSW festival. The band has gotten numerous comparisons to The Replacements' Twin/Tone-era albums, but Twin Peaks boast a considerably more varied sound — from garage-band rock to Stones-style anthems — thanks to three of its five members alternating lead vocal and songwriting roles. The band also has a habit of shifting gears unexpectedly and dramatically over the course of a single song, frequently ending up in places you'd never quite expect them to go.
2. Janelle Monáe & Wondaland, "Hell You Talmbout (Say Their Names)," (Wondaland Records)
Available solely on Janelle Monáe's Soundcloud page, this 61/2-minute protest song is surely among the most intensely political tracks released this past year. In combination with gospel backing vocals and an insistent rhythm that's half Afro-beat and half military band, the artist and her cohorts chant the names of victims of racial injustice, from Emmett Till, who was lynched in Mississippi 60 years ago, to Michael Brown, whose shooting by a white police officer put Ferguson, Missouri, on the map. The six artists take turns shouting words that are painfully simple and direct — "Kimani Gray / Say his name / Kimani Gray / Say his name / Kimani Gray / Won't you say his name?" — and the sum total is about as intense as contemporary music gets.
3. Beach Baby, "No Mind No Money" (Chess Club)
While this London band has yet to release a full album, early singles "Limousine" and "No Mind No Money" are already creating a stir in and beyond their hometown. The former has a pronounced '80s feel, but it's the comparatively hushed "No Mind No Money" that stands out, thanks to a sound that combines the best of Britpop and shoegazer bands with some Beach Boys-style backing vocals thrown in for good measure. I've listened to this single at least once a week since its June release, and have never grown tired of it.
4. Blood Orange, "Sandra's Smile" (Domino)
The Sandra in question is Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman who was stopped for a traffic violation and then hauled off to jail, where she died under questionable circumstances. The Blood Orange in question is Dev Hynes, a 30-year-old black man whose lyrics — "Closed our eyes for a while, but I still see Sandra's smile" — are sung with the kind of melodic soulfulness and smooth arrangement that suggests Michael Jackson and Tony Toni Toné at their best.
5. Denver Broncos UK, "Broncos Fight Song" (Scacunincorporated)
It took eight years for this Slim Cessna's Auto Club spinoff to release its debut album, Songs One Through Eight. "Broncos Fight Song" is one of the band's earliest tracks, with a deliberate, ethereal quality that manages to make Low sound zesty by comparison. Back then, the Denver-based outfit appeared to be a one-off project. Thankfully, that's no longer the case.
6. Funkadelic & Soul Clap featuring Sly Stone, "In Da Kar" (Soul Clap Records)
Soul Clap are a pair of young LA-based deejay/producers. George Clinton is, of course, the leader of Funkadelic and Parliament. Together, they've created this sublimely funky track, complete with the legendary Sly Stone contributing his trademark electric organ and clavinet stylings. Lyrically, "In Da Kar" involves the connection between oil companies and Middle Eastern conflicts. "Oil spill, making a killing," intones Clinton at song's end. "Pipe it, pump it, truck it, and fuck it."
- Pooneh Ghana
- Courtney Barnett
7. Courtney Barnett, "Dead Fox" (Mom + Pop)
"Dead Fox" is the closest Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett comes to Lou Reed, with an opening verse that models the sing-song narration of Reed's "Rock & Roll." The difference is the undeniably hooky chorus that's always been Barnett's stock-in-trade. There's also the feedback-laden guitar work that the singer-songwriter demonstrated throughout her set at this year's SXSW. It's been five years coming, but Barnett's American breakthrough is well-deserved.
8. Slaves, "Cheer Up London" (Virgin)
Clocking in at less than 21/2 minutes, "Cheer Up London" is the kind of British punk anthem that's guaranteed to get crowds pumping their fists to its shout-along chorus ("You're dead, already / Dead, dead, already-ready"). Slaves' lyrics are full-on snark, delivered in heavily accented tones reminiscent of The Specials' Terry Hall and The Streets' Mike Skinner, who appears on the remix. Assuming Slaves' career reaches beyond their two-album history, "Cheer Up London" is the proverbial albatross that'll be hanging around the Kent duo's necks for years to come.
- No credit
- Daniel Romano
9. Daniel Romano, "Old Fires Die" (New West)
When punks turn country, a lot of them use irony as a cover for their inability to live up to the genre's songwriting and performance standards. Canadian balladeer Daniel Romano has no need for that; his classic country sound has earned a Juno nomination as well as a loyal cult following. "Old Fires Die" echoes the achingly beautiful melodies and sorrowful lyrics of his 2014 track "He Lets Her Memory Go Wild," but with a first-person marriage-on-the-rocks slant that makes it feel all the more personal. Accordion, violin and pedal steel are included with the price of admission.
10. Kelela, "Rewind" (Cherry Coffee Music)
Forget Selena Gomez's "Good for You," D.C. native Kelela Mizanekristos' "Rewind" is the sultry, moody track you've been waiting for. Its bass-heavy production recalls house and grime music in their dance-club heydays, while Kelela's soprano vocals deserve airplay alongside contemporary r&b's best. There's also a brief Charli XCX-style rap before the final chorus, but don't hold that against her.