Some Albums I Liked In 2015
It’s been a good year for music. Out of all the albums I listened to this year, here are the ones that stood out.
10: ‘Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress’ — Godspeed You! Black Emperor
The second Godspeed album since their reunion is an album-length recording of a live staple of recent years, ‘Behemoth’. Though there are four tracks, the music never pauses, and it’s impossible to forget at any point the place in the broader composition the music you’re currently listening to has. The album is bookended by bombastic post-rock in the band’s usual freight-train-rolling mode, but you know what a Godspeed climax sounds like by now. What really stands out from the album is the middle two tracks bridging the gap. It’s a chance to hear Godspeed making restrained, minimalistic drone music that steadily builds to an explosion — a reminder that they do not trade only in climaxes but in the careful approaches thereto.
Highlights: “Lambs’ Breath”, “Asunder, Sweet”
9: The Epic — Kamasi Washington
A three-hour jazz album is a big ask for your attention span, but Kamasi Washington never feels like he’s wasting your time. The compositions here don’t feel aimless or simply blend into each other. There are enough surprises — the occasional great use of vocals, the jazz rendition of the Clair de Lune, and the mixing of different styles of jazz — to make this thing feel adventurous. This isn’t just a loosely thrown together portfolio of Washington’s work; it is, as the title announces, a true epic.
Highlights: “Henrietta Our Hero”, “Re Run Home”, “Cherokee”
8: Untitled — False
Of the new black metal bands popping up everywhere during the last few years, most fall pretty easily into one of several moulds, whether they’re aiming for a classic lo-fi sound, imitating shoegazers like Alcest, or following the math-y , experimental path of Krallice. In this landscape, False stand out for the sheer ferocious energy of their output. They recall Burzum with a bit less fanatic commitment to minimalism, or Weakling with less psychedelia. In short, if you’re looking for pure, driving black metal fury, they’re your band.
7: Platform — Holly Herndon
Holly Herndon’s aesthetic is one of digital spaces, but it concerns itself as much with objects as with information. As the title Platform implies, the theme of the album is not so much the information conveyed online but the means by which it travels. The music of Platform, though, is less coldly synthetic than this focus on form might imply. Through the use of Holly’s own voice, it becomes an album of intimate closeness and genuine warmth. It’s an album you could dance to. It’s an album that breathes.
Highlights: “Interference”, “Chorus”, “Morning Sun”
6: Art Angels — Grimes
Grimes’ new album is, for lack of a better word, her pop album. Of course she was always a pop artist really, but this year she ditched the lo-fi synths and submerged medievalism of her previous albums and replaced them with processed guitars and lush orchestral backing. It’s showier than before, but fear not, it’s still as weird. Grimes can do camp, eighties guitar pop with the best of them.
Highlights: “SCREAM”, “Flesh Without Blood”, “Life in the Vivid Dream”
5: Garden of Delete — Oneohtrix Point Never
Garden of Delete, an album (and multimedia project) built out of the assorted cultural detritus of our time, should be ugly, and in a way it is. But Daniel Lopatin knows what he’s doing, and creates something that transcends its ingredients to become beautiful. Throughout it’s an unabashedly grimy, weird thing, mashing up trance and death metal with childish glee. But it also has surprising emotional resonance, drawing out from the depths of strange nostalgia a kind of pathos you would never expect to emerge from such an odd recipe.
Highlights: “Sticky Drama”, “SDFK”, “Freaky Eyes”
4: New Bermuda — Deafheaven
Sunbather was a great album, no doubt, but it often felt like it was just washing over you, radiant and featureless. On New Bermuda Deafheaven correct this mistake and then some — every track is an adventurous series of clearly delineated sections. Tendrils extend out of the blackgaze hybrid that is the band’s comfort zone, probing the edges of doom and thrash. The result feels like a sort of medley of extreme metal history, but it in no way lacks coherence. Deafheaven use these influences as the building blocks for the sprawling structures they build on the album, with the result that each song is a journey through varied terrain, each feeling like a classically structured standalone piece, and also part of the bigger picture of New Bermuda as a whole.
Highlights: “Brought to the Water”, “Come Back”
3: Jenny Death — Death Grips
Death Grips, always full of surprises, this year released two albums and announced another, all after claiming to have broken up in 2014. Jenny Death, technically the long-delayed second half of what was supposed to be their final album, The Powers That B, was as surprising in its content as it was in its release. Death Grips have skirted the boundaries of rock music before, but Jenny Death found them inches away from releasing a full-on rap metal album. And, more surprisingly, a very, very good one.
Zach Hill recruits old Hella bandmate Julian Imsdahl to play various instruments including mellotron and organ on the album, making things sound occasionally more like a bunch of stoners making 70s prog rock than it does like anything Death Grips have released before. Andy Morin’s production makes the album’s big electro-noise moments sound bigger than ever before. And MC Ride himself uses the full range of his intimidating vocal abilities with explosive effect. The lyrics, too, run the Death Grips gamut from freaky depravity to intensely personal expressions of suicidal despair. And somehow, it all hangs together and immediately takes the position of the best album Death Grips have ever released.
Highlights: “Inanimate Sensation”, “Turned Off”, “Pss Pss”, “On GP”
2: To Pimp a Butterfly — Kendrick Lamar
It didn’t seem like Kendrick would be able to surpass his previous album, 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, any time soon, but with To Pimp a Butterfly, he has at the very least matched it. It’s broadly in the same vein as its predecessor — wonderfully eclectic in its production, telling a story with its form and content, and of course, always an immediate joy to listen to. The difference is that this time, everything feels just that little bit more ambitious, more expansive and willing to push boundaries, freer in its incorporation into hip-hop of styles — jazz, funk — that traditionally exist beyond its boundaries.
The structural conceits holding the narrative of the album together are bolder, too; at the end of many of the album’s tracks, for example, Kendrick recites a poem, getting further into it with each recitation, building up to a conceit that the final track makes clear, and which I won’t spoil here. The album is narratively ingenious in other ways too; lead single ‘i’ is on the album interrupted midway and transformed into a stirring political rallying call. Kendrick uses his formidable vocal range throughout the album to create a real sense that each character in his story has their own distinct register. It’s both a showcase of immense technical skill and a feature that really helps to add colour to the album. To Pimp a Butterfly mixes bold experimentation with immediate appeal to create the best hip-hop album in years.
Highlights: “For Free? (Interlude)”, “King Kunta”, “Institutionalized”, “Alright”, “How Much a Dollar Cost”, “The Blacker the Berry”
1: Holding Hands with Jamie — Girl Band
Girl Band, for their full-length debut Holding Hands with Jamie, did not try to soften their sound. In fact, they got noisier. The swirling chaos of the album is deceptive, though. Nothing here is noise for noise’s sake. Girl Band can go in a split second from cocooning you in soothing noise à la My Bloody Valentine to pounding you with percussive fury like a young Swans.
Lyrically, too, they operate somewhere between dark humour and genuine representations of mental breakdown — often both at the same time. This theme is what’s coming through in the music every time a steady buildup collapses into noise, or noise collapses into sudden quiet. Vocalist Dara Kiely, drawing on his own experiences of mental illness, does a lot for the album by giving us the full range of his vocal abilities, from murmuring spoken word to desperate yelping on the album’s darker moments. Even at the album’s calmest moments, he constantly feels on the edge of slipping into a scream. The music on this album is the most strikingly true musical representation of mental instability I’ve heard, covering the whole scale from quiet eccentricity or outright maelstrom. It’s also an absolutely ferocious listen.
Highlights: “In Plastic”, “Paul”, “Texting an Alien”, “Fucking Butter”