My Top 50 Albums of 2015 (50–31)

It’s been another fantastic year for music; I finished the year with over two hundred 2015 albums in my library and winnowing down to 50 was a daunting proposition. There were certainly worthy albums that dropped off the list on the final lap, but that might make the list were I to revisit it in a month. There are albums in the 30–50 range that, on any given day depending on my mood, could be in my top 10. And there are albums in the 50–100 range that could just as easily have shot into my top 25 a year from now. So this is my best shot at locking down, in the first weeks of 2016, a bucket list of 2015 albums.

So how does an album make it into my top 50? Obviously, the music and lyrics have to be good if not great; I like to be able to connect to the songs in a visceral way. There needs to be consistency throughout the album (do people even call them “albums” anymore?), meaning that I can (and want to) listen to an album from start to finish. I don’t really want a bad song in any of my top 50 albums. It’s not so common that I’ll find some sort of emotional connection with every song on any given album, I understand that. But I hate having a song I can’t stand stuck in the middle of an otherwise excellent album. As in life though, I have to make exceptions and, as often as not, those songs that seemed less than stellar in early listens worm their way into my heart and psyche and sometimes even become standout tracks.

Top 50 albums are ones that I want to return to again and again. I can’t say I‘ll always be able to recall every album in my top 50 lists — I’d have to remember 250 albums for the first half of the 20-teen’s alone and I just don’t have the mental capacity for that. But within each year, particularly with my top 10, these are the albums that dominate my listening habits. As the years roll by, hearing just one track from one of these treasured albums will pull me back for another listen of the entire album. Memories are built around these albums: listening to Zun Zun Egui, Dan Mangan and Mbongwana Star while the sun sets over the high desert plain on the drive from Taos to Albuquerque; singing along to Father John Misty as we drive the Blue Ridge Parkway on our way to a day hike at Linville Falls in the High Country of North Carolina.

Like anything, these albums won’t always stand the test of time; it’ll be interesting to see how these ones fare five, ten, fifteen years down the line. But for now, in early January 2016, here’s a list of the fifty albums that really did it for me in 2015.

FIFTY TO THIRTY ONE

Trying to come up with my top 50 albums has been tough enough; actually ranking and ordering those albums nearer the bottom of the list becomes an exercise in futility. Albums 31 through 50 are listed below, alphabetically by artist name:

Active Child — Mercy

Much of Mercy is filled with songs of desperation and passion, an outpouring of deeply emotional lyricism atop ornately arranged orchestrations that mesh pitch-changed vocals with sweetly plucked harps and slow-droning synths. There’s a fine attention to detail with how each part counters another, ensuring that each song is as rich and dynamic as it is emotionally complex. One song may rely primarily on sparse acoustic instrumentation while the next builds upon tightly packed vocal layers that bleed into a mystifying wash of organic and electronic arrangements.

Alina Baraz & Galimatias — Urban Flora (EP)

Bless the digital age, where music quite literally has no boundaries in how it’s distributed, and more importantly, how it’s made. Cue Alina Baraz, a young Los Angeles-based singer by-way-of Ohio with the voice of an angel discovering her musical soulmate in Danish electronic producer Galimatias. Despite living on separate sides of the Atlantic Ocean, the two have forged a relationship in sound that can’t be overlooked, and that’s evident on their debut EP.

Andreya Triana — Giants

It has been nearly five years since British songstress Andreya Triana graced us all with her debut album, ‘Lost Where I Belong’, but the time gone has not wearied the power in her voice or dampened the fun in her sound. While her debut was filled with promise, sophomore effort ‘Giants’ reveals a more distinct sound, and while Triana emerges as a strong, modern soul voice, their is an early limit to the album’s range.

Foals — What Went Down

That’s right. What Went Down is a triumph: a thrilling, immersive, occasionally brutal collection of songs. Echoes of Foals’ post-punk and math-rock beginnings reverberate throughout these ten tracks, combined with whispers of their trademark forays into afro-beat and dance-rock. In short: it’s a potent distillation of each style the band has perfected previously.

Hindi Zahra — Homeland

Tina and I had planned to spend a little over a week walking the Cotswold Way in July/August when Tina injured her foot. Switching gears, and knowing we had over a week left in our vacation, we decided to head to “the continent”. Our first stop was Bruges, an incredibly beautiful medieval city, where we found ourselves in the midst of a week-long art and music series. The headliner of the free concert on our first night was Hindi Zahra and it turned out to be an incredible, almost transcendent, experience that introduced me to this artist and her album Homeland. She’s been one of this year’s more pleasant discoveries and a candidate for my top 50 since the summer.

The Internet — Ego Death

The Internet spawned from the Odd Future gold rush of the early 2010s. Core members Syd tha Kyd and Matt Martians both played integral parts in the founding of the hip-hop collective before branching off to form their own jazz/soul/R&B project in 2011. That offers two lenses through which to view The Internet: They’re a group that draws relevance from past accomplishments while experimenting in other genres, or they’re one of the most engaging and well-rounded projects to come from a collective whose members have seen plenty of success. With their third album, Ego Death, The Internet continue maturing and fleshing out their sound, making use of a full band to back up Syd’s smoky vocals.

Julia Holter — Have You In My Wilderness

It’s hard to imagine anyone else ever recording these songs, so indelibly does Holter leave her mark. Such has been the consistency of the run of albums from ‘Tragedy’ through ‘Ekstasis’ to ‘Loud City Song’, garnering praise from all corners, there is a risk that we might take such quality for granted. Just one listen will remove any such complacency.

Kurt Vile — b’lieve i’m goin down

Kurt Vile has a persona, and you know him by now: He is the weird quiet kid in the corner, the one who seems at first lost in his own world and disconnected from everything around him, but turns out to be smart, observant, and low-key hilarious. So while his albums draw you in with the vibe — the impeccably recorded and mixed songs that shuffle bits of folk, new wave, or country in the mix but are always squarely down-the-middle rock — you return to them for their human qualities, the way they offer a manner of seeing the world, a glimpse at a perspective that feels both voyeuristic and easy to connect to your own life.

Lana Del Ray — Honeymoon

An intoxicating listen, ‘Honeymoon’ is designed for the red neon glow of a smoky cabaret bar, a Californian answer to the chanson tradition. Its lyrics are pulled from the jaws of tragedy, and its melodies evoke the uneasy state between wakefulness and dreaming. Lana seems more fragile, and more human this time. And it makes you think: perhaps it’s not a character after all.

Meg Baird — Don’t Weigh Down the Light

Very much a deeply personal record, and whatever heart­ache or heartbreak contributed to the writing of these songs, we should be grateful that Baird can convey such emotions with such beautiful honesty. She’s proved once again that quiet is indeed the new loud. By concentrating purely on making sensuous, timeless music with heart and soul, Baird should rightly find this album featuring prominently on many albums of the year polls.

Of Monsters And Men — Beneath The Skin

Unironically, there is much more below the surface of Beneath The Skin than there appears at first glance. The lyrics are tighter, more poetic and speak volumes of a band that have something quite specific to express. They maintain the big-band sound and love of crescendo that made their pop-based debut so successful and which initially makes it seem worryingly similar. It realises the potential in further isolating Nanna’s vocal talent and pounces on the opportunity to let the drums provide the beating heart to this fleshed-out reprise.

Portico — Living Fields

Once a jazz-laden quartet headlining world music festivals, newly regenerated trio Portico have shed not just a member but vast layers of sound on new album ‘Living Fields’, a notable and accessible triumph. They’ve always been nocturnal, dragging ambient jazz into hallucinogenic corners, but where past experiments have blossomed with intricate intelligence, ‘Living Fields’ buries it cleverly underneath the shadows and vocalists. Less intrigue and more resolution.

Pure Bathing Culture — Pray For Rain

While some may argue that the contemporary pop music canon doesn’t need yet another coming-of-age album about the dread of mortality and the struggle of staying true to oneself in the context of your impending demise, it’s also true that artists do their best work when they’re delving into the problems that are consuming them. While the driving forces behind Pray for Rain might not be ultra-fresh, Vesprille and Hindman do a more than passable job of wrapping them in a brand new package.

Say Lou Lou — Lucid Dreaming

Highlights abound. Opener Everything We Touch is a piece of windswept pop that would’ve slotted nicely on to Lykke Li’s second album. Julian is the perfect companion piece to Bat For Lashes’ Daniel, being a similarly infectious ode to a lover on the wrong side of the tracks. Angels (Above Me) has a lovely, serpentine chorus, while Peppermint is a subzero ballad with vaguely sinister overtones (“I still feel your kisses burn with peppermint”). Best of all is Wilder Than The Wind, a beautiful power ballad that may leave the emotionally vulnerable listener seeking excuses as they reach for the tissues.

Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield — Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith

Hearing this examination of Smith’s songbook, you start by appreciating his discipline, then the way Avett and Mayfield conjure and extend the extreme intimacy of the originals, then the little ways the two shine new light into the songs. Smith’s accounts of dependence (on substances, on people) were sometimes delivered as pop rhapsodies, or woozy old-time waltzes, or snarled rock-guitar harangues. And, though sometimes these styles fall outside of Avett and Mayfield’s comfort zones, the duo renders each faithfully and gently.

Silversun Pickups — Better Nature

Better Nature will undoubtedly fall into the “transitional record” category on a lot of listeners’ radars, mainly because it sacrifices a good amount of their core appeal without shattering the massive expectations set by zealous, foaming-at-the-mouth fans. It’s easy to get swept up in personal expectations — especially regarding a group you’re passionate about — and to push yourvision for the band instead of accepting their quirks and imperfections. It’s sort of an unfair predicament for the artist, but that’s often the nature of the business. In this case, the album is too conventional to satisfy those who were introduced to the band through Carnavas or Swoon, yet it’s not quite spectacular enough to take off in the huge way that many thought this record would. What Silversun Pickups have done is settle into a sweet spot. It might not sit well with everyone involved, but it takes nothing away from what this is: a gorgeous if slightly safe album that proves this band hasn’t lost their edge when it comes to making captivating music.

St. Germain — St. Germain

Navarre remains a sly master of the textural mix; a producer whose sweeping effects and atmospheric auras become part of the structure of the tunes. Still, Kouyate and the other musicians here deserve just as much credit for the overall feeling of the record. Kouyate is a storyteller in the true African sense: Using short little jabbering phrases, he states a modest idea and then, working with extreme patience, builds it into something larger, more dramatic. He thrives within St. Germain’s sonic schemes; his terse rejoinders between vocal phrases are as spellbinding as his full-on solos. He doesn’t need to stand in the spotlight to shape the feeling of the entire track. Even his single sustained notes tell stories.

Tamaryn — Cranekiss

Tamaryn experiments with texture incorporating synths, drum machines, and samples in addition to usual suspects of dream pop and shoegaze. It’s an approach the helps each cut of the album standout and prevents listener fatigue. The drums on the fadeout of “Softcore” are one notable instance where varying the timbre succeeds to great effect. It’s not without pop instincts, the title track is rush of sugar and endorphins and “Fade Away Slow” sounds like a missing cut from a This Mortal Coil album. It’s a mature and thoughtful piece of work, one that will surely be appreciated as the temperatures dip, the leaves change color, and the calendar moves to autumn and winter soon after.

Tinashe — Amethyst (mixtape)

Despite the earthy title, Amethyst dwells in the watery textures that Tinashe dabbled in on her full-length debut Aquarius. Saying it’s a comfort zone feels too demeaning; Tinashe’s simply found the space where her voice can enthrall. Tinashe brings a handful of guest producers on board, including Iamsu! and Ryan Hemsworth, but everything sounds distinctively Tinashe. The sleepy piano of “Dreams are Real” perfectly swoons under Tinashe’s voice as swelling synths buttress the chorus. “Dream are Real”, in its title and music sets the standard for all of Amethyst. Tinashe shows off a brilliant vocal range, from the fluttering verses, languid rapping, and a stellar, choir-like bridge. It’s undoubtedly Tinashe’s greatest strength; all of these songs stick to a relaxed tempo, allowing Tinashe’s morphing voice to captivate.

Yppah — Tiny Pause

Yppah (real name Joe Corrales Jr. — put an I before the PP’s in his stage name and you’ve got the pronunciation sorted) makes records that are frequently out of time. Not in terms of the pieces themselves, but more so when taking into account the wafer thin margins of twenty first century music, both artistic and commercial. One listen to ‘Tiny Pause’ and its qualities present themselves as unfamiliar yet they’re charming, almost romantic: Corrales doesn’t seek to immerse the listener in one particular style, or attempt to convey a meaning any deeper than your imagination. What he has done consistently since releasing debut ‘You Are Beautiful At All Times’ in 2006 is offer a realm in which the mind can wander, and here on his fourth album that almost rapturous sense of freedom remains his one thematic consistency.

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