December 24, 2015 by Wayne.
Anyway, 2015 was an alright year for music but it never did quite live up to the glut of incredible releases in 2014. I remember compiling the list last year and marveling at how even the albums at the 30-or-so mark were easily must-listen fare. That’s not quite the case this time round.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some stunning gems! In particular, 2015 saw Peak Sufjan Stevens as well as Kdot dropping one of the defining albums of the past few decades sooooo
fortify yourself with some craft beers (not sure what to get? I hear a new site’s brewing to address that problem…), fire up your pirating/streaming weapon of choice and get that expensive ass audio setup pumping. Let’s do this
Starting off with the losers, these are the records that didn’t quite make the cut (all of which I had fairly high hopes for):
Swans – The Gate; Sleater Kinney – No Cities to Love; Jamie xx – In Colour; Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon, Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress
And a polite, fairly restrained drum roll please for the bottom of the pack:
Meek Mill – Dreams Worth More Than Money; Lil Dicky – Professional Rapper; Fidlar – Too; Shamir – Ratchet; Beirut – No No No; Mew – +-; Beach House – Thank Your Lucky Stars; Gill Landry – Gill Landry; Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down…; San Cisco – Gracetown
Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer; Little Comets – Hope Is Just A State of Mind; Travi$ Scott – Rodeo; Grimes – Art Angels; Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love; Wavves – V; The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ; Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit; Son Lux – Bones; Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss
The list proper starts now.
40. Drake – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
Drake is a fascinating creature. This album isn’t quite the best key to understanding the man-persona Drake but it’s close enough. And it’s a decent-ish album. Although to be fair, it’s a mixtape and it shows.
39. I’m From Barcelona – Growing Up Is For Trees
I’m not crazy about this album but I think it’s pretty notable if only because it sounds like an Indie/Rock Playlist. Fairly generic indie-pop-rock fare but you can’t fault the songs for being catchy! Hope their next album is more ambitious though.
38. Mouse on the Keys – The Flowers of Romance
Side note – Mouse on the Keys were pretty impeccable when they came to KL this year. Second side note – I actually bought the CD just so I could get the poster
37. Wavves x Cloud Nothings – No Life For Me
A coupling that yields some (very) catchy effortless-sounding hooks, but not much else.
36. The Weeknd – Beauty Behind the Madness
Oh-so-cheesy, but it’s hard to deny that some tracks are pretty infectious.
35. Failure – The Heart is the Monster
Failure returns with an album that arguably tops the rest of their catalogue. The characteristic doom-grunge sound remains, albeit with a more glossy, atmospheric feel that elevates it (slightly) above typical grunge-revival fare. Could definitely do with some trimming though, since the album is hampered badly by some painfully mediocre fillers.
34. Disclosure – Caracal
Pleasant-enough background music for the most part.
33. Beach House – Depression Cherry
Lush, haunting, soothing music that’s simultaneously theatrical and easy-dreamy-listening. Lingers in the mind long after it’s gone. Depression Cherry avoids flourishes and relies on droning dreamscapes, which works for the most part – though there’s always the feeling with each Beach House album that they haven’t reached peak aching melancholia yet. I’m loving each one better than the last, though, so it’s all good.
32. Calexico – Edge of the Sun
Guided by a rich assortment of influences from across multiple genres and countries, Edge of the Sun threatens to overstep at times but thankfully succeeds for the most part.
31. Friska Viljor – My Name Is Friska Viljor
Unadorned frills-free pop-folk. Sounds rather like what Mumford & Sons would sound like if they were any good.
30. The Internet – Ego Death
Spare, crisp, and draws from R&B, soul, jazz etc. The drawling “indie-girl voice” isn’t aging well though. Ego Death ultimately sounds like a mashup of similar-sounding artistes, for better or worse.(
29. Wilco – Star Wars
It’s hard to describe this one. In a lot of ways, it just sounds horrible. At its best, it’s horribly jarring. But there’s a certain something to it that, believe it or not, makes me acknowledge that it’s good in the way that Trout Mask Replica is good.
28. Lupe Fiasco – Testuo & Youth
Hey, I like Lupe Fiasco.
27. Best Coast – California Nights
Thank Your Lucky Stars is somewhere in the list too! Which you would’ve known if you’d read closely, since it’s at the bottom of the pack
26. Meg Myers – Sorry
Meg’s LP doesn’t quite top her strong EP, but at least I have a new name to keep an eye out for. Also, in her MVs she’s the embodiment of crazy/hot
25. The Tallest Man On Earth – Dark Bird Is Home
Not his best effort, but still carries enough emotional resonance to land the #25 spot.
24. Alabama Shakes – Sound and Color
Some tracks are sensational. Gimme All Your Love, for instance, is easily one of the songs of the year. It zips across from frenetic urgency to slowly-drawn-out heartbreak and back again. It’s incredible! Unfortunately, the rest of the album don’t quite match it.
23. Battles – La Di Da Di
See you at Laneway, guys
22. Lucy Rose – Work It Out
The full conversion to pop results in a somewhat scattershot effort that, at times, comes off more like a pleasant interlude between better albums.
21. CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye
It pains me to admit this but CHVRCHES is very one-dimensional, and the latest album does nothing to dispel that feeling. Luckily it’s still somewhat fun to listen to and Lauren is still a qt who bridles with rage at anyone who says that soooo Every Open Eye just barely loses out on the top 20.
Oh, and tracks like High Enough to Carry You Over are my fave on the album, which mirrors my experience with the last one.
20. mewithoutYou – Pale Horses
Full disclosure – I can’t make my mind up about Pale Horses. Sometimes it feels like it barely scraps into the top 20. Then I listen to it again and it feels like a top 10 fo sho.
19. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
It’s hard to say anything about Father John Misty without acknowledging the fact that he’s become a living cliche, as well as the accompanying fact that he’s very much aware of this (see: 1989 covers etc). This self-awareness permeates the entire album, to the point where anything remotely in the region of kitschy feels entirely intentional and tongue-in-cheek. The misanthropy is filtered through earnest proclamations of love. The sardonic and the romantic sit side by side and often coexist in the same warbled lines. Take the ending of The Ideal Husband, for instance. Surely those are intentionally cliched lines? But then Tillman’s voice starts breaking and the distorted guitars go into an uncontrolled frenzy and you can’t help but feel that this is the central thesis of the album – that the realest truths are hidden in the most commonplace of sayings.
18. Alamo Race Track – Hawks
Cutesy indie! Instead of reviewing it, take a look at the album cover below. If you don’t like it, you’re not going to like the music.
17. My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall
My Morning Jacket have always been a curiously positive voice amidst the heartbroken mess of most music. With The Waterfall, MMJ takes its closest step to stadium-rock yet. The opener is an unabashed arena anthem. And can you really fault them for it? This is some fine songwriting, pandering be damned.
16. La Luz – Weirdo Shrine
Surf rock with undercurrents of black humour and existential dread. And that persistent hiss throughout the record! Once it’s pointed out, you can’t help but to hear it. Guess all those press releases about Ty Segall’s DIY studio worked after all.
15. Stornoway – Bonxie
It doesn’t matter that nothing on this record quite tops the brilliance of Here Comes the Blackout. Stornoway have pieced together a 60’s-influenced fun-folk album that layers hymn-like harmonized vocals with….bird calls. Don’t dismiss it without giving it a shot. Bonxie is a joyous, almost triumphant, celebration of life.
14. Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon
In the same vein as a lot of other efforts this year, Tobias Jesso Jr. overcomes the shackles of honeyed pop through sheer earnestness. Would it have made quite the same impact if it dropped in, say, the early or mid 2000s? It’s hard to say, but it’s not too big a stretch to assert that Goon is very much a product of the 2015 zeitgeist. As it is, true tenderness still has value in a time of fear, cynicism and general numbness. Who knew?
13. Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass
Trembly-voiced, majestic, rich in desperation and acceptance. You can almost hear the aching in Natalie’s voice.
12. Silversun Pickups – Better Nature
Silversun Pickups don’t change all that much from album-to-album, largely relying instead of production tweaks for the subtlest of differences with each new record. Better Nature follows that course, with many songs that wouldn’t seem out of place on Neck of the Woods if not for the fact that it’s been 3 years since NotW and rehashing the same songs becomes unsurprisingly stale after a while. Having said that, it’s still a fairly solid album when taken out of the context of Silversun Pickup’s discography. Hopefully the next is even better.
11. Built to Spill – Untethered Moon
Finicky and fiddly, Untethered Moon often feels like a hodgepodge of an album pieced together from multiple jam sessions. It feels like Mac DeMarco meets Kurt Vile, with the smug self-satisfaction replaced with raw garage rock. Good stuff.
10. Kamasi Washington – The Epic
The Epic doesn’t just live up to its name. It’s thoroughly, thoroughly overwhelming in a way that even rivals To Pimp A Butterfly at times. A large part of that is because of its sheer length. All musical ideas and motifs are fully explored here, seemingly without care about brevity or being concise. While this would typically be a shortcut to failure, it somehow works here. The result is a sort of brash, bombastic maximalism that regularly leaves the listener in awe. Hell, the diversions feel more like extended excursions! Jazz, R&B, gospel music, fusion – The Epic picks and pulls from various strings to knit together a monumental album. If you liked Flying Lotus for its genre-transcendental properties, you’re going to love this.
Having said that though, this isn’t exactly a genre-bending record. It largely floats between various strains of jazz. When it does borrow from other influences, it re-interprets them through the incisive stylings of a (very much expanded) jazz trio. Imagine a 2015 Herbie Hancock with a propensity for referencing Coltrane and Sun Ra, and you have an approximation of the batshit insanity of The Epic.
9. Dan Mangan + Blacksmith – Club Meds
With Club Meds, Dan Mangan strays somewhat from his usual brand of gravelly folk. The instrumentation becomes increasingly experimental (looping synth nuggets! distorted end-tail of vocals! bizarrely tuned guitars!) and the end result is a far-from-polished mess that brings the listener on a very erratic journey. And yet at the end of it, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a good album. And it’s even harder to get the journey out of the mind.
8. Lianne Le Havas – Blood
Breezy and…soulful? It’s not the most common of pairings, which may explain why Blood is such a stand-out album. Endearing without being overly delicate, dreamy while staying elegant, at no point does it seem like Lianna La Havas set out to make a great album (in stark contrast to most of the other top 10 in this list) and yet here we are. It’s not quite great, but it’s very very close. And it makes for some pretty great listening.
7. Carly Rae Jepsen – E.MO.TION
First things first – Yes, I Really Really Really Really Really Like You is not much more than a failed attempt at repeating Call Me Maybe. And, no, it doesn’t matter, because the rest of the album is so much more. In fact, it’s pretty appropriate that IRRRRLY is a barefaced mimicry. E.MO.TION, you see, is the quintessential pop album. And what’s a pop album without a radio single?
What? Oh. Yeah, you read that right. E.MO.TION isn’t just the best 80s-pop album or the best pop album of the year, it’s the quintessential pop album. The cuts here have the trademark odious veneer of being overly polished, but the wistful, bubblegum-y earnestness more than makes up for it. Take All That, for instance. It’s a downtempo track that oozes pain and urgency and funk-bass, and yet it steers far away from being a lovelorn ballad with wow-so-high-pitch vocals. This is, dare I say it, a mature form of pop far removed from the rest of 2015’s radio offerings. I really like it.
6. Miguel – Wildheart
Hyper-erotic, obsessed with virility and carnality, chockful with distorted synths spiraling out of control – Wildheart often feels like a small step away from a disastrous wreck. But somehow Miguel straddles that fuzzy line between genius and horrorshow. This is alt-R&B at its best, with the sort of ambitious soundscapes and writhing, seductive honesty that elude Miguel’s chart-looking peers (cough cough The Weeknd). Which isn’t to say that Wildheart eschews pop sensibilities. It’s still a pop-R&B album at its very core. It’s just incredibly easy to lose sight of that when you get on Miguel’s wild ride and traverse through the menacing bite of NWA or wanton Rhye-like eroticism of FLESH.
At times languorous, at times irritatingly brilliant, Miguel pulls off quite the album.
Joint 4/5. Hop Along – Painted Shut
Visceral indie with a healthy splattering of punk. Does that accurately describe it? It’s the kind of “lo-fi fuzz” that I like – the guitars sputter and buzz but they’re not compressed to shit behind production that tries its best to mimic 128kbps. I can hear every screeching note, every point of inflection where Frances’ voice peaks and cracks.
Confession time – I barely understood most of what Frances was snarling about the first time I listened to the record. I didn’t pick up the words the second time round either. But it still worked! The entire album just sizzles with an intensely infectious energy. Painted Shut, I dub thee dance album of 2015. It’s been a while since I had so much fun listening to an album.
Joint 4/5. Mini Mansions – The Great Pretenders
The album starts with a fuzz-laden track that feels a lot like the musical embodiment of #throwback. And I mean that in a good way! It somehow manages to cleverly capture the upbeat bittersweet thrum of nostalgia. In many ways, this is QOTSA gone psych-pop gone 90s-grunge, and the result is pretty damn good. Let the music labels worry about labelling the genre.
3. Tame Impala – Currents
Detractors decry Currents as having at most 3 or 4 good cuts on it. They’re kind of right. Currents isn’t the greatest album of the year, it doesn’t redefine an entire genre, and it doesn’t reveal lofty, profound truths about the living of life through the psychedelic lens of music. It’s just a fun, enjoyable record with a couple of incredibly addictive tracks floating in a sea of pretty-okay, typical-Kevin Parker fare. And as 2015 increasingly proved to be about appreciating the seemingly commonplace, I found myself increasingly drawn to this curious record. Even seemingly simple-on-the-surface songs like Disciples burst with a restlessness and, dare I say it, joy of life.
If anything, the much-maligned shift to synthesizers breathes fresh life into Tame Impala. Currents is Tame Impala at its most enjoyable. And my emphasis on the enjoyable may explain why the number 2 spot in the list goes to…
2. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
2 years after Control changed the rap world, Kendrick returned to top the new heights he’d pushed everyone to.
It’s not always the most enjoyable album to listen to. Heck, it’s barely digestible the first time round (thanks, Genius!). It’s also undoubtedly become one of the cornerstones of “modern” music, which sounds like ridunkulous hyperbole if you haven’t actually heard TPAB – although, why haven’t you? HOW haven’t you? I can’t think of the last time an album had so many op-eds written about it.
That’s not to say, however, that Kdot eschews musicality to pursue the wide-ranging contemplations on society, race in 21st century USA yadda yadda. Far from it. TPAB features some of the most interesting (and impressive) musical ideas of the year. It may be relentless in its overarching themes but good gods, what a way to deliver said messages. The outrage reflects itself in a jazz freakout, spoken word, vocal gymnastics, sax and bass-driven masterpiece that’s unlike any other album this year. It’s pretty good. But it’s not…
1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
This isn’t just Sufjan Stevens at his best. It feels, in many ways, like the logical conclusion of Sufjan’s long-winding musical exploration, where the Prodigal Son returns from his lavish Age of Adz to pump out the quintessential Sufjan Stevens album. You wouldn’t be far off to call it Essence of Sufjan. Even the whole Reddit-leak fiasco and the follow up response from Asthmatic Kitten felt like it fed into the experience of the album itself. And, wow, what an album. It’s almost overwhelming in its profound sadness and longing for what-has-been and what-could-have-been and the understanding that both states rarely have a clear cut divisive border. It’s haunting, introspective and devastating in equal measures. And it says a lot about Sufjan’s impeccable musicianship that such a highly personal album struck such an equally personal chord in so many listeners.
Kdot may have pulled off the landmark album that’ll come to define our time, but Carrie & Lowell has filled up – and defined – my 2015. And isn’t that what music, at its best, is supposed to do?