My Top 50 Albums of 2015
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.
THIRTY TO TWENTY ONE
30. Lianne La Havas — Blood
To mindlessly say that Lianne La Havas makes ‘love songs’ is a crime of colossal proportions. In the millennial age, love songs are typically the flimsy here’s-my-number-so-call-me-maybe sentiment of teenage antipathy, or rappers contrasting the everlasting affections for their ‘main chick’ with the ephemeral titillation their groupies provide. No, La Havas is concerned with that seemingly antiquated, chivalric notion of love as an overwhelming sensation, taking cues from the uninhibited howls of Aretha Franklin’s ‘I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You’ and the open diary vulnerability of Joni Mitchell’s Blue. La Havas generated enough applause, applause after her 2012 debut Is Your Love Big Enough was named album of the year by iTunes and Prince enlisted her help for his Art Official Age record, but her new album Blood is a shampooed and renewed artistic transcendence, inevitably commanding a higher degree of r-e-s-p-e-c-t.
29. Empress Of — Me
True to its title, Me is a vessel for Rodriguez’s most personal thoughts; she wrote these songs during an extended sojourn to central Mexico, where she lived alone for five weeks at a friend’s house in a remote small town. The intense isolation provided the opportunity to reflect upon her life back in Brooklyn with great clarity, as she laments the financial hardships of trying to make rent in a gentrified city (the steamy slow jam “Standard”) while acknowledging the luxury of living in a country with potable H20 (the rippling house of “Water Water”). But for the most part, Me is a requiem for a doomed romance, and the greatest measure of Rodriguez’s confidence is just how candid and vulnerable she allows herself to be here.
28. Lower Dens — Escape from Evil
Hunter is a charismatic singer willing to deal in grand, sweeping gestures and also idiosyncratic specifics. Escape From Evil is a vivid world of queer retrofuturism, a wide open space that offers access the emotionality of the recent past without subscribing to its violence. Hunter embraces retro-pop as a channel of escape from the power that routes us in our mundane outer lives. In the world of this album, no one will tell you who to be or where to go; it’s all yours to become.
27. Valet — Nature
Valet accomplished what many modern musicians and producers struggle with everyday: purposefulness. With the exponential growth of technology in the production of music, it is far too easy to add in sounds, beats, and instruments simply because you can. If the purpose of your song/album is to highlight this fact, then more power to you. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. Valet took their past musical knowledge and forged an expansive record that created its own little universe instead of trying to fill the infinite vacuum of our own. And while I did have to take several listens to gather together lyrics, I can appreciate the commitment to form and function when it came to Nature. Valet’s third LP is proof that hazy guitars and dream-pop vocals aren’t just for smoke-filled basements. When done right, anyone can take the journey and float with the music rather than get buried inside.
26. Israel Nash — Silver Season
Recorded at Nash’s Texas ranch with his regular four piece touring band, the richly textured yet never less than thoroughly organic album (Nash’s fourth) aims to rekindle a point at the very early 70’s when heartfelt, substantial songwriting met organic recording techniques that favoured spontaneity over excess finesse. A fair few drops of psychedelic bafflement are chucked in for extra nutrition; mellotron makes a few discreet appearances for added period authenticity amongst Nash and co.’s vibrant, psychedelically mellowed-out bar band grooves and sumptuous Crosby, Stills and Nash-style harmonising.
25. Carla Morrison — Amor Supremo
A towering standout on Carla Morrison’s new album, Amor Supremo, “No Vuelvo Jamás” is a pining anthem that opens with the Mexican singer-songwriter delivering a cascade of wordless syllables that sound less like a human voice than a wind instrument. Her overture is punctuated by an emphatic drumbeat and ominous piano chords, then an electric guitar crashes down around her. Yet, she remains unfazed by the commotion, as she half-whispers lyrics about losing herself in lovelorn madness (“locura desmedida”) and succumbing to a yearning that hurt worse (“más dolor”) than physical wounds. Morrison’s voice wavers and twirls, suggesting a less forceful Florence Welch or a more grounded Jeff Buckley. This is pop music with a healthy sense of grandeur.
24. Lanterns on the Lake — Beings
There’s something glorious about listening to an album which sounds coherent, cohesive, in which all of the songs make sense individually and within the context of the whole. Sure, there might be standout moments, but the deepest satisfaction is derived from taking in the piece as a whole. Sadly, this is all too rare in my experience, but at least with Beings, the new album from Newcastle sextet Lanterns on the Lake, the latter part of 2015 has been graced with one such artistic statement. If you’re on the lookout for songs to consume in a fit of musical gluttony, this album isn’t for you. Instead it’s a succulent, sumptuous repast to be savoured.
23. Tobias Jesso Jr — Goon
What Tobias Jesso Jr. is doing here on ‘Goon’ is far from unique. However, his contemporaries (with any significant longevity) existed four decades ago, suggesting the sentimental male pianist persona required an independent audit of sorts. Call it fate or pure luck, but his Californian disappointments have resulted in Jesso being just the right man for the job. One does have to wonder if that impartial detachment flies out the window now that the shaggy-haired songwriter is a musician on the rise with friends in high places. However, negating that concern with regards to future prospects is the high room for improvement factor, especially concerning Jesso’s simple lyrics and lack of vocal confidence. With the timeless vocals of lead single ‘How Could You Babe?’ and the deceptively perceptive ‘Can We Still Be Friends?’ recalling Lennon & McCartney respectively, then we could just well have a prodigious talent on our hands!
22. Puscifer — Money Shot
Still, the desert-weary feel that these songs hold, undoubtedly stirred up by Keenan’s home state of Arizona, is very much present — look no further than the bare bones “Smoke and Mirrors” and the forceful outlaw wit of “The Remedy.” This intangible is perhaps best displayed on “Grand Canyon” through the echoing vocals, guitars and lyrics concerned with personal insignificance when “standing on the edge of forever.” Forever may be too long to wait for Keenan’s other work, but it would be wrong to say Money Shot is any less rewarding.
21. Dan Mangan + Blacksmith — Club Meds
Dan Mangan transcended the singer-songwriter label three years ago with Oh, Fortune. Now that his band have equal footing perhaps people will start to appreciate that his work involves rich musicianship which gives the music an extra dimension and depth. Club Meds is deliberately dense and cluttered and at times confusing. The fact that it manages to be beautiful and intriguing at the same time is quite a feat.
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.
THE TOP TEN
10. Miguel — Wildheart
Miguel has occupied a unique space in the awkward “alt-R&B” narrative of the last few years. Amidst the washed out presets and drum machines and drugged-out boasting of his peers, he was a guitar-toting outlier, more of a throwback to a sensual showboat like Ginuwine instead of a self-loathing narcissist like the Weeknd. The nag champa-tinged smokiness of earlier songs like “All I Want Is You”, or the glowing synth arpeggios on “Adorn” and fuzzed out scales on “Gravity” expressed something more wholesome, hopeful, and musically psychedelic. (Even when he sang about drugs on “Do You…” it was all just a metaphor for love). On Wildheart, Miguel makes good on all of his cross-genre dabbling of the past five years, but unlike the track-based experiments that dotted his two prior LPs and five mixtapes, he extrapolates the heavy funk across an entire album.
9. Zun Zun Egui — Shackles Gift
This is a difficult album to find fault with — not only on an immediate, aesthetic level, but also on a more considered, objective one. To do so, one would have to have numerous global styles of music, some obscure and undiscovered, and one would also have to feel qualified to comment on how sensitively and effectively they are woven in to the broader tapestry of the record. It’s clear, however — on an aesthetic level, again — that everything slots together neatly and enjoyably. You don’t ever start to feel bored, but the leaps between moods and genres are never too abrupt.
8. Susanne Sundfør — Ten Love Songs
Halfway through Susanne Sundfør’s sixth album, the listener stumbles across a monolith: a vast, 10-minute edifice made up of sepulchral organ, weeping strings, Abbaeseque chord changes, a lyric in which Sundfør asserts she’s barely noticed “the cosmic war raging in the sky” because she’s so darned sad about the heartless man who took off her dress, and then — five minutes in — a chamber music section that lasts three and a half minutes. Memorial, then, is fittingly titled: it’s lachrymose almost to the point of self-parody, yet utterly magnificent. Sundfør is a bona fide star in her native Norway, No 1 albums and all, and it’s completely understandable. Ten Love Songs shows a command of artpop, chilly synthpop, and that simultaneously joyous and desperate disco that seems to seep out of Scandinavia in an unending flood: it’s both appealingly direct yet perfectly thought-through. The way the bass hook in Fade Away, a straight pinch from scores of dancefloor hits before, is kept stiff and hard seems to symbolise a mood of thwarted desire. Don’t miss out on this: it’s a quite brilliant album.
7. Torres — Sprinter
The opening of a Torres song often sounds like a distant thunderstorm in the making, gathering sonic particles into a taut force field and suddenly unleashing the whole mass in shocking, explosive bolts. Tunnels of reverb, claustrophobic ostinatos, and Mackenzie Scott’s menacing alto swirl together as pressure builds and emotions like fear, confusion, despair, and tentative flashes of hope incubate inside these charged sonic environments. The foreboding weather systems that Scott summons in her songs give dimension and extension to the topics she explores: her Baptist upbringing, her ongoing spiritual negotiation with those roots, her adoption, the weight of white guilt, the bullshittiness of social decorum — and the list goes on.
6. All We Are — All We Are
The band’s ability to sculpt late-night grooves is impressive — there’s somnambulant riffs that merge with wispy vox from Santos, Gikling and O’Flynn, but it’s never a sound to ship you off to the land of nod. It’s dreamy without being a sonic sedative; vaguely psychedelic and hypnotic without zapping energy levels.
5. Ibeyi — Ibeyi
Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi are incredible songwriters, switching from poignant ballads about the search for love (“Singles”) and departed family members (“Think of You,” “Yanira”) to celebratory rhythmic anthems (“Ghosts”) with the ease of veterans. Though XL’s Richard Russell guided them in the studio and provided outside opinion, Ibeyi is undoubtedly the work of the Díaz sisters as informed by their experiences and, perhaps as importantly, those of their family: their uncle, Eric Collin, wrote the lyrics to “Behind the Curtain”; their mother sings on record, and played mentor during the songwriting process; their sister (the titular Yanira), and their father provide spiritual and musical inspiration throughout.
4. Villagers — Darling Arithmetic
Analogies and metaphors are in short supply throughout Darling Arithmetic, at least where the man behind the words is concerned. “Do you really want to know about these lines on my face?” he later enquires, before pressing ahead and crediting them with “all the mistakes I’ve had to make” in order to find the meaning behind the title of this opening missive. Talk of ego, sweet relief and paying whatever toll consequences demand of us swell with the soundtrack but you’re never out of O’Brien’s direct earshot, never afforded the opportunity to shy away from his confessions. And yet this is no maudlin indulgence, nor gloomy stroll through difficult trenches.
3. Chris Stapleton — Traveller
Even if Traveller were a long string of depressing acoustic songs, it would still be a triumph. But as I mentioned previously, Stapleton has the versatility as both a singer and a songwriter to pull off wildly different styles. When he puts down his acoustic guitar and plugs in, his voice morphs from a gentle instrument into a full-bodied roar. Like Springsteen and Seger, Stapleton is not a tenor, but he can hit high notes with grit and force, and it’s when he pushes into his higher register that his songs really become hair-raising. Case-in-point is “Parachute,” a wrecking ball of a rock song that feels readymade for road trips and arena shows. Song-of-the-year candidate “Fire Away” is also chilling, for how it combines slow-burning tempo, electric guitar, female background vocals, and long sustained high notes into a song that needs to be on every summer nights playlist you make in 2015. And when Stapleton trades country, folk, and rock ’n’ roll for old Kentucky soul — as on the aforementioned “Tennessee Whiskey,” or the James Brown-flavored “Sometimes I Cry” — the results are downright virtuosic.
2. Mbongwana Star — From Kinshasa
Mbongwana Star are without a shadow of a doubt, the best new band to emerge from the sprawling, difficult streets of the DRC’s capital and largest city, Kinshasa. The likes of congotronic collectives Konono Nº1 and Kasai Allstars have flown the flag for traditional-sounding strands of contemporary Congolese pop music on the world stage, including those all important ‘amplified thumb pianos through burst out speakers’, but Mbongwana Star seem to break free from the image of a ‘shanty town miracle’. I’ve always felt slightly uncomfortable with this portrayal of Congolese musicians using ‘rudimentary’ equipment because they’re living in a shanty town. Maybe it’s just because an amplified mbira through a cheap amp sounds fucking awesome? Mbongwana Star reassemble the pieces of their native music into a forward thinking new form. The music is rhythmic and propped up by bountiful amounts of percussion, but without resorting to well worn central African ‘tribal’ cliches or tired rhumba rhythms. There are soaring vocals and close harmonies, but there are also primordial cries of joy and attitude heavy deliveries from two paraplegic frontmen, Coco Ngambali and Theo Nzonza. There are danceable bass lines, but they’re often razor sharp, or stuck on a bare handful of notes, closer to Joy Division than Fela Kuti. And then there are blown out electronics, but wilfully scattered over the grooves, magic dust and rocket fuel, ranging from cosmic synths as on the opening ‘From Kinshasa to the Moon’, or the irresistible gnarled mbira melody contributed by Konono Nº1‘s Mawangu Makuntima at the heart of lead single ‘Malukayi’.
1. Father John Misty — I Love You, Honeybear
The new album features a reunion with Fear Fun producer Jonathan Wilson, who channels the same expansive, Laurel Canyon-inspired Americana here. But where its predecessor was an array of Neil Young and Harry Nilsson-inspired West Coast pop, Honeybear is much more orchestral and ambitious. From the mariachi horns on album highlight “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)” to the electronic blips in “True Affection” to the soul-pop swoon of “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me,” the album is incredibly dynamic and touches on well-worn signifiers of American music traditions. There are slices of country rock, gospel, Laurel Canyon folk, and R&B that gracefully blend together. From the music alone, the album is immaculately rendered.
So that’s it for another year! Let me know what you liked and what you didn’t and, most importantly, let me know about those albums that really did it for you in 2015, those gems that you’ll go back to again and again.
May 2016 bring much joy and happiness and, of course, more great music!