My Top 50 Albums of 2015 (The Top 10)
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!