Top 10 Albums of 2015
I had over 60 albums that I was considering for my top 30 albums of the year. Some amazing stuff (Shamir, Jerusalem in My Heart, Lilly Hiatt, Floating Points) just missed the cut on my 30–11 list, which was absolutely agonizing. And this top 10? Forget about it. Outside of the fact that numbers 16–11 would have nicely fit in here any other year, analyzing and breaking down these 10 was infuriating — until I realized that I didn’t really need to order it. It’s my list after all and the difference in my enjoyment of these albums is minuscule. 2015 provided a plethora of brilliant records and placing the top tier into a segmented list felt arbitrary. All that needs to be said is that I have no doubt I’ll be listening to these albums for many, many years to come. So here (in alphabetical order) are the albums that moved me, enthralled me and made me dance.
Are You Alone?- Majical Cloudz
“And if suddenly I die/ I hope they will say/ That he was obsessed and it was okay”
Majical Cloudz’s previous album, Impersonator, was a bleak call from a self-made prison. It was a portrait of isolation, Devon Welsh’s cooing baritone second guessing every decision and sobbing over ghosts and failures. It was cathartic in an utterly devastating way, and Are You Alone? has that same strand of decimation, only mutated with a more hopeful tone. Matthew Otto’s production is astonishingly full here, heavenly and occasionally even warm next to the stark Impersonator. The keyboards sound like piercing rays of light on the chorus of “Control” and “Game Show” shows off U2-sized ambitions.
As Otto expands his palette, so does Welsh. Where Impersonator was composed of monologues, Are You Alone? is built off conversations. Welsh displays personal growth, but not with showy sentiments. “Will you let me change?/ I want to but I think you want me same,” he sings on “Control.” Welsh contrasts his claim that he’s “always laughing” with his wish to kiss “inside a car that’s crashing/ And we will both die laughing” on “Silver Car Crash.” Snippets of late-night talks with lovers, imaginary friends and family all rush through the lyrics. Welsh finds a well of empathy in these encounters. “You’re so tired that the world doesn’t spin anymore,” he sighs to a friend, having been in that exact pit of depression an album ago. It’s with that empathy that Are You Alone? becomes wonderfully romantic in the broadest senses. Welsh’s lyrics reference The Beatles, The Smiths and Radiohead, drawing from the emotional strength of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” and “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” Nothing here technically sounds like Meet the Beatles! or Kid A, but the ability to make grand, sweeping gestures about the universe in a fiercely intimate setting certainly holds true.
Whether it’s love, death or any humdrum occurrence, Otto and Welsh are here for you. “I am your friend til the end of your life,” goes closer “Call On Me.” Are you alone? No. Absolutely not.
Divers- Joanna Newsom
“The nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life”
It’s a strange experience to revisit the landmarks and touchstones of childhood. They always seem so much more fragile and small with the burden of extra years. My N64 games don’t pop with the same color they used to and the tree in the backyard is now easily climbable, no longer the formidable foe it once was. I was shocked the first time I personally read through the thick, hardcover book that my parents read to me to put me to bed. It was a book of world-wide myths, from the Round Table of King Arthur to tales of Inuit goddesses and it only held scant paragraphs over these captivating tales. I could have sworn they were multi-chapter epics, in line with Game of Thrones.
Newsom’s work is called child-like from time to time, often due to her snaking voice crawling around her immaculate harp work. I think the description only works in the previously mentioned context, as Newsom’s narrative voice is close to the hyper-imaginative world of a child, where entire lifetimes can be acted out during recess. Divers might be her most accessible album due to its relatively short run time and songs that don’t march past the quarter hour mark, but it’s just as dense and complex as the rest of her work and the concise lengths make the bursts of vivid imagery even harder to grasp on the first hundred listens. “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” peers into the future and sees World War III and IV in the near future as Newsom skips through time. “A Pin-Light Bent” is a death dirge with Newsom referring to life as the brief pin light coming through the camera, our timelines really only pictures when compared with cosmic measurements of time. “Divers” is the simplest song thematically (“the diver is my love”), but Newsom’s meditations on love in a morphing, aquatic setting churn and roll like storm whipped waves.
And we haven’t even mentioned the music yet. As always, Newsom goes for broke, smashing together chamber, ancient folk and waltzing pianos, but she also finds time for country detours (“Goose Eggs”) and an epic rock outro that Smashing Pumpkins would have been proud of (“Leaving the City”). Newsom, quite obviously, doesn’t go for small gains. Even the softest songs call upon the forces of nature to tell her twisting narratives. For that, Divers is something that can’t be dealt with on normal terms. It conjures up far too many scope breaking and sublime images.
As beautiful as the ocean, as big as a bedtime story.
Get to Heaven- Everything Everything
“A trail of destruction but at least it’s a trail”
2015 was the year the bad guys won. A line of buffoons and barbarians were lined up as possible leaders of the free world, the ever growing madness of terrorism consumed entire countries and the most devastating civil war in recent memory raged on. From Dylann Roof to ISIS, 2015 saw humans whose skeletal system had more hate than marrow, and they wrought their evil upon the world. And Everything Everything recorded every second.
Get to Heaven is the document of a fractured time, where infighting overtook solidarity and confusion reigned. “Bet you’ll see me on the news, then never again,” sang ringleader Jonathan Higgs, echoing the thoughts of Black Americans, journalists and Syrians whose lives could be reduced to a news worthy footnote at a moment’s notice. The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis described Get to Heaven as the musical version of “the information overload of 24-hour rolling news” and he couldn’t have been more right. A thousand different ideas, both lyrical and musical, blur by creating a brilliant information overload, like your Twitter feed being forced directly into your brain.
Musically, Everything Everything have ascended to the height of TV on the Radio’s halcyon days, where genre was of no concern. The rapturous title track sounds like Talking Heads working with Paul Simon while their phones were being wiretapped, the chain-gang rattle of “Regret” is paired with a floating and fluttering chorus and closer “Warm Healer” mutated fuzzed out electronic funk and late night jazz into something gorgeous.
That music, so vividly apocalyptic, is the bubbling opinions and sounds from every corner of the globe colliding with each other through malfunctioning Ethernet cables. Higgs, with his cracked falsetto, told 12 mesmerizing short stories from the former refugee looking back in tears on “Zero Pharaoh” to the near death revelations of “The Wheel (Is Turning Now).” But the most affecting was “Fortune 500.” I received my copy of Get to Heaven only a few days before the Paris massacre, casting the song into a terrifyingly contemporary warning. Higgs inhabits the mind of a fundamentalist on a mission to kill the Queen of England while voices swirl around him chanting “I should do this for my son” and “I’ve won, I’ve won, they’ve told me that I’ve won.”
Get to Heaven envisions the no-win situations. In the aftermath of a terrorist attack there is only apathy or violence. Everything Everything here mourn the nuance that could have been found in between. Get to Heaven is the sound and the sign of the time.
Have You in My Wilderness- Julia Holter
“May I be your prodigal girl just bathing in the light?”
Considering her last album was partially based on the French film Gigi, it’s not a surprise that Julia Holter’s work can be labeled as cinematic quite easily. But that doesn’t get to the heart of her music. There’s something more intimate and literary to Have You in My Wilderness. It reads like an ornate one-act play or a vivid slice of life short story.
Much like Loud City Song, Have You in My Wilderness instantly entraps the listener in Holter’s world. Opener “Feel You” has the curtains draw aside with a flourish of harpsichord and Holter laughing about missed meetings and trips to Mexico. The subtle joy of “Feel You” is tinted by a papal be sense of longing: nearly every song here refers to possible romances or adventures to far-away seas. “I’ll hand him his coat/ It’s exactly where he left it long ago/ We’ll fall all over floorboards/ I lose my breath just envisioning the scene,” she sings on “Silhouette.” Those sort of lines are common on Wilderness; Holter packing in details in a quick succession that reveal past, present and future for the characters that wonder through her scenes.
Holter’s compositional chops have, somehow, gotten even stronger. And that seems completely unfair. Harpsichord and piano lines are always placed precisely, strings fade in and out with perfect grace and a wayward saxophone even finds a proper home on “Sea Calls Me Home.” Of course, there’s also her voice. Warm, strange and utterly enchanting, her performance here might be the best vocal work of 2015, not just for sheer pleasure, but also capturing pieces of nostalgia and crushed hope in equal weight. On the closing track, her voice almost breaks from the strain as she cries “Why do I feel you running away?” It’s the floodgates opening after an album’s worth of reminiscing and pondering over missed chances.
Maybe my idea of a short story or play was off center. With the gorgeous depictions of cities and sea sides, Have You in My Wilderness is a painting of the highest romantic quality. Its beauty in the details, its creator’s prowess unchallenged.
La Di Da Di- Battles
Funny that it took Battles three albums, a decade and a few EPs to make a rock record. Though, “rock record” is a gross undertelling of what exactly La Di Da Di is. It’s a bristling pop album, a bouncy electronic LP and an unrelenting force of instrumental rock all mashed into one boiling package.
It really should be illegal to be this smart and this strong at the same time. The whiplash tempo and dynamic shifts, along with meticulous layers upon layers of looping, prove the first attribute, but that’s always been Battles’ strong suite. What would have “Atlas” or “Ice Cream” been without mesmerizing loops and earthquake inducing builds? What La Di Da Di delivers is an influx of muscle. Nothing quite had the steel of La Di Da Di in 2015, from the opening salvo of “The Yabba” to the exceptionally violent “Non-Violence.”
This is at least partially due to a lack of vocalists on the album, focusing in on the absurd talents of the three gentlemen at the center of this glorious noise. Ian Williams acted like an Adderall addicted octopus, leaping from Ableton programing, to whirling keyboards to slicing guitars in seconds. Dave Konopka’s guitar and bass work gave the songs grit and fuzzy power on tracks like “Tricentennial.” Finally, of course, was John Stanier, proving himself to be one of the finest drummers alive. His drum heroics cannot be overstated: the crashing frenzy of “Dot Net,” the mad, rolling fills of “Tricentennial” and the brutal acrobatics of “Non-Violence” will all go down in the drummer hall of fame, not just for technical skill, but for the raw power found in them. In a way, that’s what made all of La Di Da Di so fantastic. Yes it was precision made, but its brute strength was also unparalleled.
Prom King- Skylar Spence
“I’ll love you ’til the record stops”
I liked Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories as much as the next disco lover, but, in my heart of hearts, I wanted something more. As impossible as it was, I wanted an album that would instantly transport me to the dancefloor, where I would get swept off my feet by the lights and music. Daft Punk are only robots, and couldn’t quite get that feeling that their masterstroke Discovery delivered. But a human, of all things, did gift wrap that blurry, giddy feeling of completely losing yourself to dance with Prom King.
Ryan DeRobertis, AKA Skylar Spence (and formally named Saint Pepsi) had been rolling with the vaporwave crew up until 2013, when he released the brilliant Hit Vibes, which held the fledgling ideas that would eventually evolve into Prom King. But when asked about his old music he just laughs. “Slowed some music down and called myself an artist,” he sings with a shrug. He’s got bigger, poppier things on the mind. And Prom King is in fact huge and insidiously catchy. In a righteous world, every song on here would be a chart topper, and DeRobertis’ name will undoubtedly come up as a ghost writer on future pop hits, the guy is simply too talented with his genre not to go straight to the top. It’s a meticulous crafting of music on display, DeRobertis cutting up samples, pushing out slick beats and cooing his way to victory. He’s got a romantic sway to his music that pushes past any hint of cheese, making the teenie-bopper sentiment of “Fall Harder” become endearing and closer “Fiona Coyne” enters a special pantheon of bubbly love songs. And of course there’s the absurdly catchy “Can’t You See” which is the best pop song of the decade and I will fight anyone who disagrees.
In an interview before a certain soda company had a word or two about his name, DeRobertis proclaimed “I want to make pop music for freaks.” And, true, the music of Skylar Spence doesn’t have the factory produced appeal of so much middle of the road pop music. But, with all respect to his wishes, it’s so good that anyone can enjoy it. With Prom King he’s made music for everybody.
Sleep- Max Richter
I still haven’t fallen asleep to Sleep. Hypothetically this should be a massive problem in my enjoyment. Sleep is a nine-hour long album meant to accompany the REM cycle and help the body get more restful snoozing hours. So if it failed on that count, why do I still love it so much?
As batshit crazy as it sounds, Sleep induced a series of hallucinations and other odd body functions within me. I experienced minor sleep paralysis and Alice in Wonderland syndrome, a delightful trip where the room around you appears to grow. I have no idea what in the humming notes of Sleep triggered these events, but I can say that Max Richter’s work here has profoundly effected my mind and body in a way no other album ever has.
When I interviewed Richter, he revealed that Sleep wasn’t always meant as a night-time aid. He saw it as a form of instant relaxation to be used at any time needed. Including work hours, commutes and, yes, while trying to get some shuteye. And there is an instantaneous reaction when the pleasant waves of Sleep hit the eardrums. It’s all cooing pianos, violins, occasional interjections of voices and a soft mummer from the cavernous electronics below. Motifs reappear and snake around each other; the beautifully sung lines on “Path 3” pop to the surface long after the original song has faded away, but sometimes they are reimagined in the body of a violin or in the tinkering notes of a piano. In this way, Richter has conveyed the strange logic of dreams into music. Things are recycled, mutated, reexamined as the body rests. Richter, somehow, created a mirror to our sleeping minds with a liminal, ethereal space that cocoons with comfort and warmth. No I may not fall asleep to it, but Sleep brings me tranquility in a way no other music can.
Summertime ’06- Vince Staples
“At first I’m just a nigga, until I fill my pockets/ Then I’m Mr. Nigga.”
Every rapper wanted to be a filmmaker in 2015. Kendrick wanted to be Spike Lee, Chance made Broadway by way of Chicago, and Earl settled on Eraserhead horror. Vince Staples directed deftly with Summertime ’06 as well, but there weren’t any filters, no big name stars. If Kendrick filmed on 80 millimeter, Staples was using a GoPro, catching every nasty detail. His descriptions matched the iPhone-filmed videos of Ferguson and Eric Garner’s death, leaving un-washable blood on the scene. There wasn’t a false note to be found between twitchy, abyssal production and Staples’ own pitch-black bars focused on murder, economic devastation and a version of L.A. that would kill you as soon as look at you.
Staples is the realest rapper of 2015, but he never needs to say it. “They found another dead body in the alley,” he deadpans on “Birds & Bees” counting the ever climbing body count with the detachment of someone filing taxes. Over the Jaws like production of “Surf” he growls ““16 I heard you want to be a star girl/ What he’d charge for the dream that you bought girl?/ What’s the price of life in this dark world?” It sounds like Staples will let the question float in the air, only to instantly answer with “couple hundred where I come from,” refusing to let easy answers or ignorance survive in his wake. There’s no single material here, it’s all too real, all too bloody. But Staples won’t ever let you turn away. He wants you to see the grime and grit.
Undertale Soundtrack- Toby Fox
“It fills you with determination”
Undertale expertly lands into the pantheon of soundtracks that can be enjoyed without their source material. Undertale by itself was my favorite video game release of 2015, but I think that the score will stay with me just as long as the game itself. Toby Fox (who also made nearly aspect of the game) shows off his dexterity, launching from folk (“Home”), chamber (“Waterfall”), electro-swing (“Dummy!”) to disco (“Death by Glamour”). Some songs do have a video gamey sensibility, but others could have been produced by the respective masters of their genre. The progressive electronic of “CORE” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Oneotrix Point Never record, “It’s Raining Somewhere Else” could have been the background to an early Tom Waits album and the hideous breakcore of “Your Best Nightmare” is straight out of Venetian Snare’s warped mind.
Undertale, in the music of its boss battles, harkens back to other brilliant video game soundtracks (The first few Pokémon titles spring to mind), proving it to be a worthy successor to other RPGs. “Spear of Justice” is all boisterous courage wrapped in 16 bit synths, the now ubiquitous “Megalovania” took the internet by storm for a reason and “Spider Dance” is as infectious as it is creepy. These are Final Fantasy level themes that thrill long after the battles are over.
But, again, Fox’s flexibility makes Undertale a wonder to listen to period. The real trick of Undertale is how moving this music can be even without the game. The comfort given by “Home (Music Box)” is unparalleled, the title track is a potent, mini-epic and the microscopic “Memory” is so fragile, so tiny, yet so incredible. Those relistening to the soundtrack will no doubt find fond nostalgia in the notes, but even for those just tuning into these songs without the game might just find a speck of sentiment in their eye.
“Show me emotional respect”
The most heartbreaking moment in Vulnicura is also its smallest. It’s not the maelstrom of “Black Lake”, the destructive paranoia of “Lion Song” or the declaration of a family drained of love in “Notget.” It’s the album’s shortest song, with it’s simplest sentiment. On “History of Touches” Björk reminisces “Every single fuck/ We had together/ Is in a wondrous time lapse.” She can see her marriage dissolving around her while she desperately recalls joyous moments, attempting to banish the rising darkness.
Björk is often seen as something alien, something other. A spirit descended to earth with wonderful, otherworldly music flowing from her mind. It’s here on “History of Touches” and on all of Vulnicura that we see someone once unstoppable, once untouchable, shattered. Only stately opener “Stonemilker” acts as a beacon of light, as the rest of Vulnicura descends into the abyss. Album center, “Black Lake,” runs for over 10 minutes, alternating between Bjork’s grief cast against crying violins and glitchy bouts of destruction. Even scarier is the broken and bursting “Family,” with the once whole trio of Father, Mother, Child now torn and desecrated. “Where do I go to make an offering?” Björk asks in one of her last moments of lucidity, before sorrow swallows her whole. The elegant, yet ferocious “Atom Dance” (featuring a fellow vocal angel, Anthony) best surmises the musical motifs of Vulnicura, dipping into the same waters of Homogenic, which married electronic madness with regal strings. Once it seemed to be a comment on the synthetic and the natural morphing into one being; now all is informed by grief, with Björk disappearing and becoming her music.
Yet, in the darkest moments, we see her bones knit and heart heal. “When she’s broken/ She is whole!” Björk proclaims on finale “Quicksand.” And with Vulnicura she undoubtedly is. By showing her depression, her nightmare, her weakness, she is even stronger.