Best of 2015: Streaming services try to steer you to the Coldplay interstate, but take the side streets to better music

Earl Sweatshirt's work is worth seeking out.
(Scott Dudelson / Getty Images)

Call 2015 the Choose Your Own Adventure year in music.

As the scope and range of music available on a weekly, daily and hourly basis expands, those who care about art that exists outside the mainstream have endless opportunity for discovery. Recommendation engines and “related” links offer infinite detours to unheard sounds. Each new click — Adele or FKA Twigs? Kendrick Lamar or Young Thug? Carly Rae Jepsen or Courtney Barnett? — can lead down a musical path that a few minutes prior had gone uncharted.

LIST: See Randall Roberts’ best pop music albums of 2015

But searching for sonic surprise has also never been more frustrating. With billions being invested in a streaming future controlled by portals such as Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube and Pandora, well-financed companies that represent major artists such as the Weeknd, Justin Bieber and U2 are determined to vibrate as many eardrums as possible.


As a result, the main pages of streaming services may be crammed with tips and charts, but a disproportionate majority of them recommend music from big-ticket concerns whose catalogs are essential to the business model. Corporations now control eyeballs the way they used to control display space at record stores.

It’s as though with each foray into the wilderness of 30 million songs, the major players have constructed billboards that direct would-be explorers onto the Coldplay interstate — while just beyond the frontage road are miraculously articulated vistas created by artists such as Natalie Prass, Jlin, Deafheaven and Earl Sweatshirt.

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From a creative perspective, this survival-of-the-fittest mentality hasn’t caused much trouble. As always, the best music at any given moment consumes space in our psyches that we didn’t even know was available, and magnetic voices are everywhere. We make head space amid the clutter for new creative ideas.

Pick a genre, a playlist or a curator and chances are within a few microseconds you’ll be contributing micropayments to rising artists. Spotify’s automatically generated Discovery Weekly playlist seems to know as much about my tastes as I do. With each list comes confirmation that there’s never been more great music available as there is now.

The inverse? There’s also never been more mediocrity. Specifically, the volume of imitators mining the past to replicate its successes has seldom been so obvious. A friend described these acts as “Civil War re-enactors,” which is an apt description for artists such as Leon Bridges (soul), Speedy Ortiz (indie rock), Tame Impala (psychedelic rock) and Chvrches (synth-pop), each of whom seems time-traveled from other eras. Their on-their-sleeve influences don’t invalidate their art, of course — a great song is a great song — but the mimicry does make it suspect to those of us who follow contemporary music as a means of experiencing shock-of-the-new thrills and unexpected innovations.

That said, why deny the obvious allure of a well-crafted song? After all, my list of favorite albums, which is mostly focused on lesser-known acts, includes outliers more interested in emotional exploration than instrumental innovation. Chamber-pop master Sufjan Stevens’ devastating “Carrie & Lowell” and Detroit post-punk band Protomartyr’s “The Agent Intellect” lend credence to the argument that great works transcend time, space and shelf space in their quest to earn fans.

Whether they can transcend streaming-service algorithms is another story.