My Top 50 Albums of 2015 (20–11)

TWENTY TO ELEVEN

20. Benjamin Clementine — At Least For Now

There are some astonishing moments on At Least For Now. Clementine’s voice is a force to be reckoned with — throaty, powerful, and theatrical to the point of histrionic — and his piano-playing bears all the hallmarks of unorthodoxy you would expect from a successful autodidact….With the expressive but exact enunciation of a stage actor, Clementine allows his lyrics to spill and scatter out of sync with his hands in a way which warrants the endless Nina Simone comparisons. Yet as an atypical singer-songwriter with a strong sense of grandeur, an impressively broad tenor range and more than a dash of dark humour, he also resembles Rufus Wainwright. And like Wainwright, he is at his best when alone at a grand piano, occasionally supplemented by strings.

19. Bjo¨rk — Vulnicura

Vulnicura is a deeply tortured album. It is tortured in the way that the conversations in your head are. The arguments and confessions that rattle back and forth inside your skull. Waves of monologue rippling through brain tissue, sputtering and sloshing about in the white noise wash of a continuous feedback loop. Tortured like the endless second guesses. Tortured like the motivational untruths you tell yourself before bed. Tortured like the nightmares that come anyway. Tortured like waking up in a cold sweat, tangled in the sheets of an empty bed. Tortured like realizing you weren’t dreaming.

18. The Helio Sequence — The Helio Sequence

A thoroughly stunning album is not unexpected after the incredible one-two punch of Keep Your Eyes Ahead and Negotiations, but that the album follows a different formula all together makes it a more remarkable feat. Recalibrated as a looser, more energetic band, The Helio Sequence has created a euphoric, career-defining album.

17. Sufjan Stevens — Carrie & Lowell

The title refers to Stevens’ mother and stepfather, though the lyrics address the former more directly. She left Stevens and his siblings when he was a baby, and his memories of her stem mostly from summer visits to Oregon when he was a toddler and grade-schooler. He was with her when she died a few years ago, and his attempts to reconcile his feelings — of abandonment, love, resentment, confusion, self-loathing, nostalgia — are the sensitive tendons that resist and then go slack throughout these songs. Most feel like attempts to heal by way of quiet confrontation — call it primal whisper therapy. It’s tricky territory to navigate in these cynical times, and hardened hearts and ears might find it off-putting. But meet Carrie & Lowell on its terms and it’s revelatory.

16. Ancient Warfare — The Pale Horse

The band name and album title for Ancient Warfare’s The Pale Horse suggests metal — something blackened, possibly from somewhere Scandinavian. But the band turns out to be a quartet based in Lexington, Ky. that trades in cinematic Americana. Focused around the songwriting, singing, and guitar playing of Echo Wilcox, Ancient Warfare take a well-worn form and invest it with some of the mystery of its best practitioners. From the start of the album, where a low guitar reverb effect leads to a quick pause before Wilcox simply sings the title word of the opening track, “Darlin’”, there’s a heavy-lidded mood at play the kind of slow intensity that can be terribly boring in the wrong hands, but The Pale Horse is immediately compelling. In the first song alone, there are quiet touches that emerge with time — how the violin part floats upward, the extra guitar notes picked out towards the conclusion — testifying to the quiet power of a carefully detailed performance.

15. Aero Flynn — Aero Flynn

This is no straightforward folk album. This is no homage to a scene. This is no vanity project from Justin Vernon’s buddy. This is perhaps the most deeply rewarding album from a singer songwriter released this year. Each time you think you have the measure of it, it takes things in a wildly different direction. Each time you think you have the drop of who Josh Scott is, what kind of artist he is or seeks to be, another string is added to his bow. He is a formidable talent.

14. The Amazing — Picture You

The end result is a record that reverently draws from a dazzling array of past masters only to short-circuit critical capacity. Discussion of Picture You can only end up with slack-jawed remarks about how goddamn pretty it is. Stranger still is how the adverbs you’d feel tempted to latch onto that superlative somehow makes that seem like a bad thing: “obscenely pretty,” “ridiculously beautiful,” etc. But the Amazing specialize in a beauty that isn’t airbrushed or slick or antiseptic, the kind captured by lad mags or Trevor Horn, everything exaggerated to emphasize its status as eye or ear candy. Nor is it smudged or vaporous like shoegaze. It doesn’t even make a full attempt at an au naturel realism of folk or the otherworldliness of psych-rock, though it does touch on those aspects. Picture You is elemental rock — earthy, molten, aquatic, but using each of their qualities to soothe rather than destroy or intimidate.

13. Painted Palms — Horizons

Horizons is exactly that: a contemporary take on ’80s synth pop that plays to its strengths without suffering from its limitations. A lot of the throwback sounds being released today seem a bit too reliant on retro cheesiness as a crutch, but Painted Palms have used their forebears as seeds rather than templates. The resulting music is very much their own.

12. Leon Bridges — Coming Home

For 25-year-old Leon Bridges, the comparisons to Sam Cooke are inevitable because of this music. The young R&B singer and guitarist from Fort Worth, Texas fashions himself in only the finest vintage threads, and takes obvious aesthetic influence from Mr. Soul. The cover of Coming Home features the same color scheme, posture and imagery as Cooke’s 1964 Ain’t That Good News. But more importantly, Bridges sounds like the 21st century reincarnation of Cooke, with his smooth, soulful croon directly out the turbulent times of the early 1960s.

11. Soko — My Dreams Dictate My Reality

Soko chopped her long, brunette waves into a self-proclaimed “illegitimate daughter of Andy Warhol” look and worked with legendary Cure producer Ross Robinson in his Venice Beach home studio for months, inventing a smoldering pop-goth sound that employs reverb and political defiance without batting an eye. Soko’s songwriting has been pointedly fatalist for a while now, and that’s all still here on My Dreams Dictate My Reality, but now it’s often balanced with a child-like glee — a spontaneous, mischievous energy that infuses the mood. This album captures the neon-lit doomsday vibrations of Los Angeles, especially on “Monster Love” and “Lovetrap,” the songs Ariel Pink guests on. (Soko returned the favor by guesting on several tracks from his new album Pom Pom, too.) But where Pink drawls and whines, Soko’s clipped, foreign vocals slice through the volatile synths. Elsewhere, she sings in the tear-streaked whisper of a woman used to handling her own pain, managing her own disappointment. Even Soko’s rebellion has a dreaminess to it, every bit of luster tinted with sadness and an urge toward the otherworldly.

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