What an amazing year for music. This is not a formal writing – I just keep track of what l listen to and decided to make a list of my favorite albums from the year. These are the results.
Obviously this caters to the genres of music I like the most. I mostly listen to indie, post-punk, rock, experimental, electronic and ambient music. I am trying to branch out and am a newcomer to metal, hip hop, country and jazz. The last time I put together a list like this was in 2013. I also wrote a “favorite music so far this year” post this summer, and I pulled some writing from it on albums where my views haven’t changed significantly.
I listened to many new albums and enjoyed all but 1 or 2 of them. I had a difficult time narrowing this list to only 50.
So, first, some honorable mentions that I absolutely loved: Brian Wilson – No Pier Pressure, Refused – Freedom, CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye, Jessica Curry – Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, Ceremony – The L-Shaped Man, Foals – What Went Down, Autre Ne Veut – Age of Transparency, Passion Pit – Kindred, The Maccabees – Marks to Prove It, MS MR – How Does It Feel, Pope Francis – Wake Up!, Carly Rae Jepsen – E-MO-TION.
And next, a second group of honorable mentions that I loved even more: Blur – The Magic Whip, Silversun Pickups – Better Nature – Florence and the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Muse – Drones, Destroyer – Poison Season, Infected Mushroom – Converting Vegetarians II, Deerhunter – Poison Season, Flying Saucer Attack – Instrumentals 2015, Atrium Carceri – The Old City (OST), Run the Jewels – Meow the Jewels, Wilco – Star Wars, San Cisco – Gracetown, Yo La Tengo – Stuff Like That There, Grimes – Art Angels, Milk Carton Kids – Monterey, William Basinski – Cascade, Laurel Halo – In Situ.
Lastly, some superb remasterings/rediscoveries/rereleases of older recordings that I did not consider eligible for the Top 50: The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground – Loaded, Bruce Springsteen – The Ties That Bind, Various Artists – [Cease & Desist] DIY (Cult Classics from the Post-Punk Era 1978-1982), David Lynch – Polish Night Music. I’m also full of anticipation for Chromatics’ upcoming Dear Tommy.
This list also would not be complete without a special mention of Beyoncé’s self-titled album from last December. Like a lot of people, I made my previous albums-of-the-year list just before its unannounced premiere. It would have been in the top 10 in my previous list if I waited longer to post it.
50. Purity Ring – another eternity (Electronic, Dream Pop)
The tricky thing about another eternity is that, on the surface, it sounds more positive and romantic than its predecessor. While it’s easy to miss the immediate, piercing hooks from Shrines, another eternity draws a raw power out of the conflict between the upbeat tempos and the emotional torment of the lyrics. Love, heartache, pleasure and pain all manifest on the body, whether Megan James is speaking of herself or in second person. On “stranger than earth”, “there was a stagger that shifted my hips/o how swiftly it shook/the dew from my lips/there was a danger that seeped from my skull”. Another Eternity bravely crafts a sense of disorientation and bliss through juxtaposition and demonstrates Purity Ring refining their sound when a retread of Shrines would have been safer and easier.
49. The Weeknd – Beauty Behind the Madness (Pop, R&B)
Big, irresistibly catchy pop music so well-crafted that I can forget that centerpiece “Earned It” originates from the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. Abel Tesfaye doesn’t need the distracting guest artists who sink the final leg of the album – he’s at his best making his own introspective musings anthemic.
48. Kurt Vile – b’lieve I’m goin’ down… (Indie Rock, Indie Folk)
Vile follows the airy, expansive tunes from Wakin on a Pretty Daze, with a more direct approach to the same feeling of laid-back wooziness. The banjo dropped by Mumford & Sons is picked up here to great effect. While not as striking or immediately enrapturing as its predecessor, b’lieve I’m goin’ down continues to showcase a most reliable songwriter at a creative peak.
47. Galantis – Pharmacy (Dance-Pop)
A booming, ultra-catchy album from Sweden that I discovered on one of my friend Patric’s Spotify playlists. The production is massive and songs are packed with great hooks.
46. Jeremih – Late Nights: The Album (R&B)
An impressively subtly and serenely produced album for an artist best known for “Birthday Sex”. Opener “Planez” exemplifies how lyrics that could belong to wacky throwaways about getting laid, partying, and drug use can be transformed into meditative art by laying gently-delivered vocals over quiet, slow beats.
45. Obsequiae – Aria of Vernal Tombs (Black Metal)
Layered, melodic black metal adorned with harp, strings, and an operatic atmosphere. This is what I imagine he guys from Medieval Times listen to after work.
44. Duran Duran – Paper Gods (Synthpop/New wave)
One of the quintessential bands from the 80s manages to sound positively alive and in-touch with the present moment on their surprisingly excellent fourteenth album. Duran Duran’s signature style is only a step removed from pop music today, allowing for the band to sound at ease while emulating what plays on the radio. The sprawling opener “Paper Gods” settles into a stellar dance groove amidst singer Simon Le Bon’s lamentations on slacktivist outrage culture. Even as highlight “Kill Me With Silence” portrays the withholding of a text message or phone call from a romantic partner in deadly terms, Duran Duran spin the sentiment into something strangely danceable. The observations may be scathing, but Paper Gods never stops the party to dwell on them.
43. The Vaccines – English Graffiti (Rock)
Brit rockers The Vaccines embrace their own egos and slacker ethos in their satisfying sophomore release. You could accuse them of shamelessly borrowing from the Strokes, the Smiths, and Arctic Monkeys, but why bother? There’s always a place for a great rock record, and this is a great rock record, full of fuzzy-yet-radio-friendly riffs (“Dream Lover”, “Handsome”) and even a few resplendent love ballads (“Maybe I Could Hold You”, highlight “Give Me a Sign”).
42. Ava Luna – Infinite House (Noise Rock)
The ultra artsy New York-based ensemble Ava Luna meld post-punk with a cacophony of noise music to create a groovy fifth album. Every song feels like it’s about to spiral out of control, the product of every performer bringing new ideas to the table, but it all adds up to a coherent whole. In the opening moments, thundering bass and drums transform “Do you appreciate my company?” into “DO YOU APPRECIATE MY COMPANY?”, turning a tepid request into a demand. Thanks to the razor-sharp musicianship of each member of the quintet, it’s easy to say yes.
41. Pile – You’re Better Than This (Grunge, Boise Rock)
There’s no mastering the chaos here: the angry, discordant guitar spattering and furious vocals of Pile’s lead singer Rick Maguire are the whole point. The Boston rockers third album pummels you with the frustration over watching time drain away while your life fails to move in the direction you want. Fortunately, Pile can make gripping music out of the venting of anger, making You’re Better Than This a dizzying but relentlessly captivating ride.
40. Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues (Progressive Bluegrass)
In retrospect, it’s easy to see the genre-transcending Who’s Feeling Young Now (2012) as a charitable attempt by Chris Thile and co. to find common ground with audiences new to bluegrass. The Phosphorescent Blues, by contrast, is begging you to hand yourself over to the New York quintet and listen. Ten minute opener “Familiarity” constructs a massive sonic landscape that creates a galloping march out of a hymn-like plea for deeper emotional connection. Single “Blow it Off” embodies the promotional posters showing the band staring at their cell phones instead of the world around them (“There’s nothin’ to say/That couldn’t just as well be sent.”) We already know that the Punch Brothers carry frenetic energy on stage; by holding back, they invoke a sense of urgency and humanity.
39. A$AP Rocky – At. Long. Last. A$AP (Hip hop)
A$AP Rocky’s highly-anticipated sophomore full-length is stuffed with swagger, celebration of vices, guest performers (Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Miguel, Rod Stewart) and a preoccupation with God and religion. Stunning opener “Holy Ghost” borrows hymnals from Oh Brother, Where Art Thou to reflect on afterlife and mortality, with the recent passing of producer and mentor A$AP Yams not-so-subtly in the backdrop. The production by Danger Mouse (who finished the album after Yams’ death) presents A$AP Rocky as more defiant that than mournful, and the rest of the album follows suite. Mayers’ wordplay is excellent throughout – At. Long. Last. A$AP find him settling into strong persona and confirms his status as a force to be reckoned with.
38. Negative Scanner – Negative Scanner (Post-Punk)
Chicago post-punkers Negative Scanner assemble the traditional elements that make me love the genre – furious minor chords on the guitar, intricate rhythms, growling bass – and present them with a violent energy that rips through 11 songs in 27 minutes. Their secret weapon is lead singer Rebecca Valeriano-Flores, whose hollering of menacing repetitions (“Do you want her heart and soul?” followed by “Can you see?/Can you see?/Do you see?/Do you see?”) makes the music outright confrontational.
37. Editors – In Dream (Post-Punk)
In the past, Editors showed their influences (Echo & the Bunnymen, Joy Division, Interpol) so clearly that many critics unfairly dismissed them as second-rate rip-offs, and it’s too bad so many jumped ship before In Dream could prove them wrong. Great music is nothing new to Editors, a band that has only gotten better in its second decade. On In Dream, however, Editors have fully-realized a unique vision that no other band could have made. Each song contributes in its own way to the album’s moody, mysterious atmosphere. “No Harm” opens with a disquieting electronic hum out of which frontman Tom Smith’s creepy vocals rise (“My children despise my wonderful lies/I’m a go-getter/I see through your walls, in your space down your halls/I’m a go-getter”). It’s a brilliant exercise in sustained tension and one of Editors’ best songs to date. “No Harm” smoothly transitions to crisply-produced “Ocean of Night”, a crystalline piano ballad that casts a glimmer of light on the murky atmosphere that surrounds it. Most striking of all is the synth-driven single “Life is a Fear”, which features perhaps Smith’s most dynamic and precisely-delivered vocal performance to date. “The Law” balances delicately between vocals by Smith and guest performer Rachel Goswell, and closer “Marching Orders” releases an hour’s worth of dread an unease in a crescendo of cathartic bliss. There are a few weak moments, but In Dream is the sound of a criminally underappreciated band at its finest.
36. Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon (Pop)
Lana Del Rey’s brooding and eloquent third LP omits catchy hooks and choruses (except on single “High By the Beach”) in favor of languid, meandering endeavors. The production feels stripped-down, which leaves Del Rey’s diva persona and little else. And that’s fine, as Honeymoon feels like Lana Del Rey fully realizing her identity as a performer. Her vocals carry the album through its inconsistent songwriting. These are songs to dive into and get lost in.
35. Neon Indian – Vega Intl. Night School (Dance, Synth-Pop)
After his laptop containing demos for new songs was stolen, Alan Palomo decided to look backwards for Vega Intl. Night School. The portrayals of ecstatic late-night clubbing draw from the 70s and 80s, both instrumentally and lyrically. On “Annie”, all Palamo can hear is the “beep” from “your answering, answering machine” amidst a jumble of keyboard tones 70s and 80s. The songs, which blend together, are crammed full of so many sound effects (running water rushes through “Hit Parade”), electronic beats, rhythms (often from a reggae influence), shifts in tempo, and vocal overdubs that the listening experience could easily become tiring, but Palomo puts so much work into making each moment easy to listen to that Vega Intl. Night School flows effortlessly as an album.
34. Andrew Bird – Echolocations: Canyon
The violin piece “Yawny at the Apocalypse” was always my favorite part of Bird’s masterful Armchair Apocrypha, so it came as a pleasant surprise that his latest release is a violin-only work that includes a track titled “The Return of Yawny”. Bird recorded each track amidst running water and airy ambience of Utah’s Coyote Gulch, and Bird plans on recording the same pieces at a lake, river, city and forest in future installments. A remarkably sustained, uninterrupted idea, Echolocations: Canyon is a pristine and transcendental experience. Calling it perfect background music sounds like a backhanded compliment – perfect thinking music is a better way of describing it.
33. Major Lazer – Peace is the Mission (EDM)
Diplo’s third album under the Major Lazer project is flooded by guest artists and dance beats. Mega-hit “Lean On”, featuring Mø and DJ Snake, naturally stands out, and it’s easy to imagine Rihanna and Nicki Minaj wishing they hadn’t turned it down. (The gap in Spotify plays between the 571,000,000 for “Lean On” and the 243,000 for extended LP track “Thunder & Lightning” must be some kind of a record). It’s a credit to the talent of Diplo and his guest artists that “Lean on” and Hunger Games remix “All My Love” don’t overwhelm the surrounding tracks. Indeed, Peace is the Mission doesn’t have a slow moment.
32. Max Richter – From Sleep
A calming and gorgeous sound composition. I didn’t try to seek out the full 8-hour version meant to represent a sleep cycle, but this one-hour set of excerpts finds an lucid beauty in simple piano lines, cello, viola, soothing vocals, and ambient textures. The only other work by Richter (a German-born British composer) that I’m familiar with is his soundtrack to the animated Israeli film Waltz With Bashir (2008), which is equally stunning.
31. Drake – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (Hip hop)
Drake’s dropped this 17-track mixtape with no warning allegedly to earn release from his contract with Cash Money Records. After the boastful “Legend”, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late finds Drake absorbed in annoyance and contempt. Drake’s voice sounds tired and lifeless, and the beats are fittingly murky and subdued. At 17 tracks, the mixtape becomes dreary and draining as Drake complains about superficiality, falsehood and empty romance. He is often his own target, muttering “I’m leaving/I’m gone/I’ve been doing this wrong/I’ve been here for too long” on the hypnotic “Now and Forever”. In the most memorable moment, “Preach” fades into a murmuring electronic soundscape that in turn bleeds into the dreamlike “Wednesday Night Interlude”, which provides a brief respite from the bitterness all around it. (Both tracks feature PARTYNEXTDOOR.) The exception here is show-stealing closer “6PM in New York”, in which Drake vents his frustrations at media and delivers some memorable diss lines. There’s nothing here as heartfelt as “Find Your Love” or as catchy as “Over”, but the honest and painful reflections of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late stick with you longer.
30. Infected Mushroom – Friends on Mushrooms (EDM)
A compilation of three EPs, new tracks, and remixes by the Israeli duo Infected Mushroom. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable collection of songs that morph, digress, and explode, with the only constant (to the ears of a newcomer to the genre) being a sense of momentum that somehow keeps the songs coherent.
29. Jazmine Sullivan – Reality Show (R&B, Soul)
Sullivan’s return from the “indefinite” hiatus she declared only four years ago finds her remarkably confident even as her persona shifts constantly between songs. The public was clearly ready for her, with Reality Show reaching #2 in US Billboard sales. Opening pair “Dumb” and “Mascara” grab you right away, with Sullivan embodying contrast figures of chiding confidence and restless insecurity with remarkable conviction. Throughout, she delivers vocal performances with gusto and grace, especially on highlight “Forever Don’t Last”. Let’s hope she’s here to stay.
28. Low – Ones and Sixes (Slowcore, Rock)
Brittle, bitter tunes from one of my all-time favorite bands. The album has a harsh mood – listening to it is comparable to feeling a rush of cold wind hit your face as you look out on a snowy expanse. Ones and Sixes feels like an evolution of Low’s signature sound more than their previous full-length, the puzzling The Invisible Way, which was pretty but didn’t play to the band’s core strengths. Here, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s vocals harmonize as effectively as ever (especially on the knock-out “Lies”), but the disquieting lyrics and atmosphere renders the sound in a dissonant context. The dusty synths that provide the rhythms on many tracks don’t always work, but the sense of a band with nothing left to prove still trying to prove something meaningful remains a constant.
27. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Stretch Music (Jazz)
I don’t know anything about jazz. I listened to this because I want to remedy that and because the cover art grabbed my attention. I found these pieces to have a lot of emotion buried within them. It’s terrific, with an impressive variety in style and structure.
26. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love (Punk Rock)
No Cities to Love is 2015’s coolest album, a feat made all the more impressive by the facts that 20 years have passed since Sleater-Kinney first formed and 10 since the release of their previous album. Corin Tucker’s forceful vocals intertwine with jagged guitar riffs and clamoring drums for startling effect with often anthemic results, especially on “Surface Envy” (which celebrates the band’s reunion – “Only together do we break the rules”) and the sludgy “New Wave”. There isn’t a slow moment over the album’s trim 32 minute length. Tucker’s lyrics are feminist in the broad sense of exhibiting full autonomy and empowerment (“Gimme Love” sounds less like a hope than a demand). But even as punkish defiance often characterizes the songs, middle age and exhaustion loom in the distance (“Exhume our idols and bury our friends/We’re wild and weary but we won’t give in” “If we are truly dancing our swan song, darling/Shake it like never before”). If No Cities to Love is any indication, though, the Canadian trio have plenty of spark left in them.
25. Vetiver – Complete Strangers (Indie Folk)
Since 2004, San Francisco outfit Vetiver have released six great albums, all with their own nuances but a reliably relaxing atmosphere. Complete Strangers opens with a promise of something new in the form of the seven-minute “Stranger Still”, which creates a playful feel from synths, drum loops, and Andy Cabic’s restrained vocals. The rest of the album plays like more of a typically Vetiver album, for better or for worse. Tracks like “Shadows Lane” and “From Now On” could be called “sleep-inducing”, but there’s no reason to be so ungenerous. Vetiver are experts in carving pleasant environments out of the haze cast by Cabic, slow tempos, and simple melodies. Track-by-track, it’s one of Vetiver’s strongest yet.
24. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls (Metal)
Iron Maiden’s first album in five years quickly dispels with any notion of the band getting soft as the ages of the band members near sixty. The Book of Souls is a double-album as long as a feature-length film, full of massive songs (“Tears of a Clown” is the shortest at 4:59 and three last longer than 10 minutes). The guitar textures and singing by Bruce Dickinson are operatic in scope, and the whole band plays with strong chemistry. Iron Maiden already had a phenomenal legacy with nothing to prove, but here, they’ve unexpectedly delivered an album to add to the top echelon of their work.
23. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color (Roots Rock)
Alabama Shakes’ sophomore release integrates soul, blues and country with modern rock to create a compelling work that transcends its influences. Lead vocalist Brittany Howard sings over an impressively wide range within individual songs. The band sounds brisk and confident on rockers “The Greatest”, “Future People” and “Don’t Wanna Fight”. A quirky sense of abandon and improvisation runs through the album’s many surprising moments. Sound & Color is the sound of a band is taking ownership of their own identity and defining themselves not in the past but in the present moment.
22. Jon Hopkins – Late Night Tales (Electronic, Ambient)
In theory, Jon Hopkins is a perfect fit for a Late Night Tales compilation. For anyone unfamiliar, each Late Night Tales installment consist of one artist mixing a selection of thematically-related music from different artists. In the final track, one of the artists reads a story. Hopkins’ phenomenal Immunity (my #2 album of 2013) took a night out as a concept, with the first half representing a dance club and the airy second half a comforting, hazy aftermath (either sleep or the next morning). His Late Night Tales feels like a sequel, with its 15+ artists mixed into a soothing and gentle listen. This is great music for reading. Hopkins’ own contribution, a piano cover of Yeasayer’s “I Remember” is perhaps the prettiest of all. Only leterette’s “After Dawn” has a pulse, and it makes for a stunning counterweight to the rest of the material. This Late Night Tales may have benefited from a couple more songs like this because at 19 tracks, the languid pace can get wearisome. But it’s absolutely gorgeous all the same and successful at presenting a brilliant artist following through with a specific vision through to the very end.
21. Björk – Vulnicura (Electronic, Art Pop)
A big, Sigur Ros-like meditation on heartbreak. On the-minute centerpiece “Black Lake”, Björk bluntly wonders, “Did I love you too much?” Her lyrics are painfully direct, giving off the feeling of someone connected to their own soul and bravely exposing every bit of it. Although the production, by several artists (including Haxan Cloak), creates striking, cinematic aural landscapes, it’s Björk’s singing that holds Vulnicura together. The way she annunciates the words implies greater depths beneath them, as if the layers of the songs we hear are only the beginning of something greater.
20. Wax Idols – American Tragic – (“Bitch Pop, Sad Core, etc.”)
American Tragic finds songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist and former dominatrix Hether Fortune diving into the aesthetics of 80s gothic, post-punk, and dark wave to create an emotionally vibrant and empowering album. Each song quickly presents an instantly catchy riff, melody, and/or riff to hold on to, but the structures are surprisingly varied and complex. American Tragic is an immediately satisfying album, but there are layers to the instrumental lines and empowering lyrics that demand repeated listens to find. Pulsating single “Lonely You” is one of the best songs of the year.
19. My Disco – Severe (Art Rock, Post-Punk)
Australian outfit My Disco’s previous album, 2011’s Little Joy, blew me away. It garnered the trio some publicity and an Australian Independent Record Award for Best Hard Rock or Punk Album. (For what it’s worth, I also put together a video for one of its songs.) Severe focuses less on rhythm than on chiseling out a dark atmosphere through the clash of screeching background noises and harsh guitar chords, a mood perfectly captured by the jagged imagery of the cover art. Singer Liam Andrews provides his usual monotonous vocals and repetitive lyrics, which fit the grim mood perfectly. Severe feels like the culmination of My Disco’s bizarre musical style, and hopefully it will win them the larger global audience they deserve.
18. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell (Indie)
Sufjan Stevens’ deeply intimate tribute to his relationships with his mother and father plays like the album the Grammy voters thought they were listening to when they gave Morning Phase the top award last year. It bears resemblance to “Futile Devices” from The Age of Adz, dropping orchestral arrangements for quite acoustic pieces rife with references to Stevens’ Christian identity. He approaches his mother, who was absent during most of his life, from a poignant and vulnerable perspective that acknowledges her flaws while conveying heartfelt admiration and appreciation. Stevens’ applies his own compositional finesse and understated vocals to make every song flow smoothly – Carrie and Lowell is nearly as complex a work as Illinois, even if it doesn’t feel like it at first. It adds a new dimension to Stevens’ already impressive range as a songwriter and performer, confirming him as one of the most talented and impactful musicians of our time.
17. Apollo Cobra – The Last EP (Indie, Electro-Rock)
The Minneapolis-based band takes a remarkably earnest approach to flashy 70’s electro rock, a style that can easily devolve into self-parody. I first heard of Apollo Cobra after randomly reviewing their second album for WRVU. While much of it was laughable (particularly the track “Shut Up”, which has the refrain “Shut up/I want to make out with you”), it had some terrific melodies and one knock-out track (“This Is”). While only five songs long, The Last EP is leaps and bounds ahead of Apollo Cobra’s earlier work, synthesizing New Order-ish electronics with sharp hooks and smooth vocals. The production has a less dated feel – it comes across more like Daft Punk’s rediscovery on Random Access Memories than an actual relic from a movement that hasn’t aged particularly well. Apollo Cobra are one of those bands that gets a huge spike inlast.fm playcounts whenever I start listening to them, so I’d love it if anyone would take my advice and check out this EP.
(this had 10 views when I first found it, as of publishing this post it has 72)
16. Disasterpeace – It Follows (Soundtrack)
I watched It Follows after a random week-long John Carpenter craze during which I repeatedly listened through his electronic film soundtracks. It Follows doesn’t just pay tribute to Carpenter’s most accomplished music from Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween III (and Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for The Thing, which Carpenter directed), but, like the movie’s retro-premise, filters their gloom-tinged electronic ambience through current tropes and to create a work relevant to the present moment. “Detroit” lulls uneasily like the urban dereliction spread over the movie’s backdrop, “Heels” growls horrifically and “Linger” firmly takes the darker side of the movie’s ambiguous ending. Disasterpeace’s enthralling score (with plenty of help from David Robert Mitchell’s direction and visual finesse) helps separate It Follows from the pack of lesser horror movies (which probably explains its comparatively low box office gross) and cements its legacy as a modern horror classic. When was the last time a movie lived up to a soundtrack this good?
15. Beach House – Depression Cherry/Thank Your Lucky Stars (Dream Pop)
It’s one thing to drop a full album with little warning; it’s another to drop an unexpected album less than two months after releasing another. Depression Cherry premiered in August to a warm reception that was well-deserved. It was the album everyone expected from the Baltimore duo – lush, inviting soundscapes driven by simple, mesmerizing melodies, and it marked an ever-so-slight evolution in the band’s sound. Thank Your Lucky Stars followed in October. It was a puzzling move, given that Depression Cherry felt like a complete work on its own. (A great quip from a review on SputnikMusic sums up the bewildered response: “This leads to a slight cheapening of the former album, no longer a record in its own right but a box with half the puzzle pieces; and it also leads to an unavoidable letdown when the second box comes, and all along it was just a picture of a cat or something. “) Beach House have urged fans not to think of Thank Your Lucky Stars as a companion piece, but as a unique album in its own right, which is difficult to do given the close release days. I’m still not sure what they were going for, but after digging into Thank Your Lucky Stars, I actually prefer it, as the slightly-rocking “One Thing” and the drowsy “She’s So Lovely” harken back to the more unpredictable environments of Beach House’s comparatively lo-fi early music than the accessible groove they’ve settled into. Both records are lovely, though, and they are convincing evidence that Beach House are incapable of making a bad album or even a bad song.
14. Nite Fields – Depersonalization (Post-Punk)
Even as the post-punk revival movement continues to fade irrevocably from mainstream popularity or attention, new gloomy outfits like the Australian quartet Nite Fields continue to spring up. Depersonalization feels like a debut, especially in how the band pays so much more tribute to their influences (Movement-era New Order, Seventeen Seconds-era The Cure, Joy Division) than to their own sound. Nonetheless, there’s an admirable sense of patience, restraint and building tension throughout Depersonalization that make it stand out from the pack. Layers of white noise and reverb add a Goth atmosphere to “Fill the Void”, the instrumental “Pay for Strangers” and the cavernous 7-minute highlight “Winter’s Gone”. “You I Never Know” briefly punches through its chilling surroundings in a brief release of the alienation and dread that characterizes Nite Fields’ natural palette. Depersonalization can feel slight at first, but it’s ultimately a grower from a band with a great deal of potential.
13. Holly Herndon – Platform (Experimental, Electronic)
Holly Herndon, a doctoral student (as of 2012) in composition at Stanford University, exhibits a fascination with the intersection of technology with politics, gender, and intimacy on her bizarre debut. The video for breakthrough single “Chorus” shows the ever-presence of computers in Herndon’s life (one of the rarely discernible lyrics is “I lie with you”), and the modulated vocal and sound effects take the form of Gregorian chants in “Unequal”. Platform is the album a computer would make if it found a soul – not a Skynet-like supercomputer, but a personal computer befuddled at its user’s rush to check Facebook and watch cute animal videos while barely glancing over various Terms & Conditions before clicking “agree”.
12. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material (Country)
I’m not normally a fan of country music, but Kacey Musgraves won me over as soon as I heard the delightful single “Biscuits”. Pageant Material was recorded in Nashville and sounds like it, in the best way possible. Its fourteen tunes are true to the spirit of contemporary country music a their core, with Musgrave quipping “You can take me out of the country/But you can’t take the country out of me” on “Dime Store Cowboy” and a hidden track at the end featuring a duet between Musgrave and Willie Nelson. On the periphery, though, are plenty of personal touches that challenge that foundation, notably Musgraves’ fondness of weed (especially on opener “High Time”) and the layers of expectation and judgment she faces as a female performer (“There’s certain things that you’re supposed to know when you’re a girl who grows up in the South/I try to use my common sense, but my foot always ends up in my mouth”). In the title track, these concerns arise simultaneously: “My momma cried when she realized/That I ain’t pageant material/I’m always higher than my hair/And it ain’t that I don’t care about world peace/But I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage.” Musgraves’ charming delivery of the lyrics – which somehow manage to be clever, sharp, funny, and critical often all at once – makes the songs irresistible. Musgraves is here to stay – hopefully for quite a while if she can continue to deliver this level of emotional poignancy in tunes that are a joy to hear.
11. Braids – Deep in the Iris (Indie Rock)
Montreal-based Braids have described Deep in the Iris as about “a number of heavy subjects, including pornography, abuse, and slutshaming.” Braids apply a background of synths, drum beats, and ambience that bare resemblance to Purity Ring or Beach House, but the songs are far more grounded, direct, and emotionally devastating. Centerpiece “Miniskirt” is the perfect example of this. If it were wedged into Björk’s Vulnerica, it would not only fit the mood of naked emotion but be the highlight. Raphaelle Standell makes the song into a feminist anthem where her refusal to hide her observations in metaphor (“It’s not like I’m feeling much different than a woman my age years ago/ Liberated is what you wanna call it, how about unfairly choked?”) makes them all the more urgent. The exhaustion and desperation of much of the album makes the resplendent rediscovery of love on “Taste” and the reflection on the loss of it in highlight “Warm Like Summer” all the more poignant.
10. New Order – Music Complete (Electronic)
The biggest surprise of the year. I remain one of the few defender’s of 2013’s Lost Sirens, but there’s no question that New Order is long past its peak from the 80s. With bassist Peter Hook acrimoniously separated from the band, I expected the watered-down sorta-okay album that lead single and opening track “Restless” promised. Fortunately, “Restless” is a grower, and the rest of the album is loads of fun. Music Complete is the sound of New Order as New Order – we get tons of electrifying rhythms, throwbacks to the menacing Movement era sound (notably in the intro to “Singularity”), and plenty of dance tracks that could have been left off of Technique (1989) and benefit from the return of Gillian Gilbert. “Plastic”, “People on the High Line”, anthemic lost-love closer “Superheated” (featuring The Killers’ Brendan Flowers), and “Tutti Frutti” all belong on the top tier of great New Order songs. Music Complete isn’t perfect – a few later tracks (especially “The Game”) are borderline throwaways, most of the songs run a minute too long, and the inexplicable addition of soggy strings to the production detracts from a few otherwise stellar moments – but it’s a breath of fresh air for longtime fans and a reminder of what made New Order so great in the first place.
9. Jamie xx – In Colour (Electronic, Dance)
Jamie xx’s solo record takes the form of club music that sounds entirely out of any specific place or time. There are plenty of sound effects, distorted vocals (many excerpts from BBC TV shows), and shuffling beats, but nothing is superfluous. The tracks featuring Romy (“SeeSaw” and “Loud Places”) are as good as, if not better than, anything by the xx as a full group.
8. The Soft Moon – Deeper (Dark Wave)
Luis Vasques’s latest installment in his post-punk/electronic project lives up to its title by delving beyond the lurid late night atmospheres explored in his first records. This approach makes Deeper a draining listen that digs into your subconscious. Vasquez’s lyrics – which oscillate between passible goth-kid poetry to effectively conjuring up hazy abstractions and images of existential meditation – all point to heated introspection, with their cold melodic structures as the only beacon of light fading into the distance. Stunning closer “Being” sounds like the rocky bottom of the narrator’s disorienting descent, with narrator murmuring (and then screaming) “I can’t see my face/I don’t know where I am” in a chilling conclusion. The electronic beats and echoing ambience demand that the music be played at a high volume. The Soft Moon sounds like a refined version of Clan of Xymox, and the album is a must-have for any fan of the genre.
7. Prurient – Frozen Niagara Falls (Noise, Experimental)
Noise artist Dominick Fernow’s daunting 91 minute release is the most difficult, abrasive, and harrowing album I’ve ever heard, although I have to wonder, based off the titles alone, if his past works Annihilationist, Cocaine Death, or History of Aids are even more demanding and extreme. Fernow combines the synths of horror movie soundtracks with hissing feedback and his shrieking vocals. I don’t know if I’d ever want to meet Fernow in real life, nor do I know if he would even want me to like the album. But I do all the same. The elements that make up the cacophony are actually carefully chosen and unfurl with satisfying precision, especially on ten-minute opener “The Myth of Building Bridges”, which sounds like a John Carpenter’s theme to Assault on Precinct 13 theme being pulled to pieces in a blender which, in turn, is being crushed by the machine at the end of The Terminator. The synth beat to “Dragonflies to Sew You Up” could conceivably get airplay with a different song around it, and acoustic centerpiece “Greenpoint” settles into a tentative, tepid sense of calm amidst the storm around it. Frozen Niagara Falls isn’t for everybody (I don’t think I’ve even managed to listen to it all-at-once on one continuous play-through), but Fernow has found a darkness here more ominous than the atmosphere or villain of any horror movie.
6. Lower Dens – Escape from Evil (Indie Rock)
The Baltimore-based indie rockers expand from their greyish abstractions to a more welcoming pop sound, and the results are marvelous. Vocalist Jana Hunter, an avid critic of Spotify, pirating and musical mass consumption (who had a major influence on a post I made on the subject in 2013), delivers another sensational performance. The rest of the band melds the shady moods and sauntering electronics from Nootropics and the self-titled debut with catchy melodies and drum beats. Every track is its own highlight. Opener “Sucker’s Shangri-La” finds Hunter realizing that a relationship is not all she’d hoped (“This is not what you’ve been waiting for/They fooled you” “It doesn’t help that he can see you coming/And he knows how to break you like an animal”). A conflicted yearning for love underlines “Your Heart is Still Beating” (“Your heart is still beating in all of my dreams/And I swore again and again/Never again/Never again”), and a dark undercurrent runs though the suicide-pact show-stopper “Non Grata”. The lush, cinematic scope hints at a vast world of sonic exploration for Lower Dens to explore.
5. Tame Impala – Currents (Psychedelic Pop)
Kevin Parker, the producer, songwriter, and frontman of the Australian outfit Tame Impala bravely reimagined the group’s core sound for Currents, reducing the role of guitar in favor of synths and electronic beats. This approach could have made Tame Impala sound too similar to other bands, but instead it results their catchiest and most relaxed work to date. Parker is a known perfectionist whose last-minute tweaking delayed the release of Currents by two months, but it’s to his credit that the songs all feel stripped-down so that each moment has exactly the right sounds in the right rations and nothing else. The atmosphere is laid-back, drawing from soft rock and R&B. “Cause I’m a Man”, “The Less I Know the Better”, “The Moment”, and “Yes I’m Changing” are rife with hooks – replaying them is so tempting that it’s difficult to even make it to the end of the record. The change in style may disappoint some fans and, in all fairness, many of Currents best moments are the ones that seem drawn from the same template as Impala’s earlier music (the rumbling guitar during the chorus of “’Cause I’m a Man” comes to mind). But the labor Parker poured into the album pays off so splendidly as to make it one of the year’s best releases.
4. Deafheaven – New Bermuda (Black Metal)
I first tried to listen to metal music about a year ago. I started with foundational works by Metallica and Iron Maiden before checking out Deafheaven’s 2013 breakthrough Sunbather. I understand that its popularity has led to a bit of a backlash from (some) metalheads accusing it not being a “true” metal album that brought a flock of hipsters (or wanna-be hipsters, like me) into a scene where they didn’t belong. I may embody everything some fans hate about Deafheaven fans, or I may not. I couldn’t care less, outside of acknowledging that I’m at least aware of all this. Anyway, after spending the better part of a year blasting “The Pecan Tree” (from my Toyota Prius), it was refreshing to find that the pummeling noise of that track defines New Bermuda, with the more melodic and accessible passages fewer and far between. Every track is over 8 minutes long, and I can’t imagine that there is a single person outside of the band who can most of what vocalist George Clarke is screaming without looking up the lyrics. The melodies and riffs are enormously strong. The highlight for me is “Come Back”, which opens with five minutes of thundering drum and guitar as Clarke describes his efforts to help a friend struggle against drug addiction, efforts that fail “before the endless truth of instability and futility.” Clarke hollers “NOW I KNOW” before the song’s disintegrates into a solemn, remorseful instrumental that loosely resembles the theme from Twin Peaks for its second half. Like the portrayal of a tattered father-son relationship on “The Pecan Tree”, “Come Back” and the rest of New Bermuda adopts an epic scale to convey deeply personal struggle.
3. Viet Cong – Viet Cong (Noise Rock, Post-Punk)
The mess that is Viet Cong’s history more-or-less starts with the all-male band Women, which fell apart after an on-stage fight between its members and (unrelatedly) the 2012 death of vocalist/guitarist Christopher Reimer. Two of its remaining members joined with two new guitarists to come up with an even worse band name, which quickly apologized for after the cancellation of a show at Oberlin after the venue’s promoter called it “a name that deeply offends and hurts Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American communities.” (This is a whole other conversation, but the issue isn’t so much that the band name is offensive as it is that the band members have publicly admitted to putting no thought or effort into its selection.) Finally, in September, they announced that they would change the band name, although they haven’t chosen a new one yet. Controversy aside, Viet Cong’s self-titled album is a masterwork of noise rock – it’s ranks up with Turn on the Bright Lights, Boxer, and Silence Yourself as one of the strongest and most immediate post-punk albums of the new millennium. The interlocking chords the kick off “Bunker Buster” and proggy show-stopper “Death” make order out of layered fuzz and noise and create the feeling of witnessing a band pulling off a spellbinding late-night encore in a sweaty, crowded venue.
2. Lonelady – Hinterland (Post-Punk, Pop)
I discovered Lonelady on a cover album put together by NME of New Orders Power, Corruption & Lies (1983). After hearing her striking rendition of “Cries and Whispers”, I made a mental note to check out more of her work. Hinterland keeps the gloomy post-punk style of Lonelady’s earlier work, but adds to it a series of infectiously catchy and hummable pop melodies. Julie Campbell, the solo force from Manchester behind the project, has crafted killer hooks and melodies that help deliver a stunning, edgy persona. “Flee!” is a strong exercise in sustained tension, but the rest of the album delivers through clever wordplay and intricate rhythms. The sharp-as-knives bass and drum instrumental that opens “Into the Cave” make a perfect backdrop for Campbell’s introduction, as she announces, “I don’t want the factual life/It’s an age of reaction/To solid things felt outside/Take me deeper.” “Bunkerpop” sketches the disorientation of a late-night clubbing with only the band’s skeletal sonic palette to surprisingly ecstatic effect, while the anthemic “Hinterland” confirms just how far Lonelady has expanded its sound from its brittle origins. While Hinterland is thoroughly a genre-exercise, it is one that I think will instantly appeal to anybody reading this list.
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly (Hip hop)
2015 needed this album, as evidenced by every Black Lives Matters protest, every speech by Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and, heck, virtually every appearance of the figures at the head of the Democratic establishment. It’s an urgent album, one that refuses to separate Lamar’s struggle to grow as a man when society shuns what he was taught to strive for. “i” breaks down at the halfway point for Lamar to lament a system where African Americans make up 60% of those imprisoned (“The judge make time, so it shouldn’t be shit for us to come out here and appreciate the little bit of life we’ve got left”). The confrontational and introspective closer “Mortal Man” follows, featuring ingenious and powerful wordplay as Lamar draws from the backlashes against Moses, Martin Luther King, JFK, Huey Newton, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, Jessie Jackson, and Michael Jackson, to ask his fans “When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?” Throughout, the mixing and production are exquisite and expertly executed. “Alright”, “King Kunta”, and “How Much a Dollar Cost?” (President Obama’s favorite song of the year) are thrilling, while “If These Walls Could Talk” nearly steals the show with its observations on empty romance, prison, respect, and street violence and retaliation.
While reading an analysis of the cover art by The Guardian, I finally discerned the white judge buried under the crowd – if you take “To Pimp a Butterfly” as a reference to “To Kill a Mockingbird”, then the white judge on the ground could be John Taylor, who presided fairly over an unfair trial in a broken system. Taking The Guardian’s theory a step further, I note the prescience of its rejection of the white savior elements of the classic book in light of its sequel/draft/cash-in only a few months later that exposes Atticus Finch as an opponent to the court-ordered integration that followed Brown v. Board of Education. The key accomplishment of To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t just that it finds art in the rift between racial injustice as white America sees it in To Kill A Mockingbird and the reality of it that so much of black America actually experiences, but for how this reality permeates every element of the complicated and flawed lives of Lamar and the narrators he inhabits.
It was a struggle narrowing the music I listened to this year to only 50 albums, and it was another struggle to rank the 49 albums above. But To Pimp A Butterfly was an easy pick for #1. To Pimp a Butterfly is 2015.