Friday, December 4, 2015

The Best Albums of 2015

So, this morning, the new Coldplay album dropped. I can never hear every album in a given year and there's always something everyone else agrees is amazing and puts on their lists that I discover too late and, yeah... but the Coldplay album was one I had pre-ordered and we're talking about, possibly, the biggest revenue band in the world right now. I've only listened a couple times and I don't have nearly enough time to let it settle in and see where it might fit in with the picks below. That said... when you say "featuring Tove Lo" in the song title and you really mean "she does the backing vocals," you aren't playing your strongest hand by definition.

Anyhow... 2015 was just plain lousy with good music and I kind of don't want the year to end if there's some sort of magic in the air this calendar year that makes amazing happen.

Honorable Mentions

Avicii - Stories - Another totally listenable dance album. I mean, the straight up filth of "Pure Grinding" on the same disc as Zac Brown with a big beat on "Broken Arrows?" Why not? Plus, "Waiting for Love" and "For a Better Day" are the sort of songs we'll be hearing remixes of for the foreseeable future. Good stuff.

Holly Miranda - Holly Miranda - As an Amazon Prime member, I got to listen to this free all year and I am so glad. This is a solid album and, at the very least, go download "Whatever You Want." There's some fat to trim here, but overall, a really nice new(ish) voice out there.

Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit - This is going to be on a lot of people's top 10 lists and, yeah, it does shred and yeah she's a lyrical genius and yeah. It's real good. For me it was an album for when I was in a certain mood, not an album that tried to force me out of the office to just listen to it.

Big Grams - Big Grams - Apparently Big Boi came upon Phantogram and posted a song to his site and Phantogram heard about it and connections were made and here we are. This is actually awesome... until, completely inexplicably, the last two songs (featuring Run the Jewels and Skrillex, respectively) are actually something of a let-down. If this had been a five-song EP, it's in the top 10. Please please please do not let this be a one-off. "Lights On" and "Goldmine Junkie" are what you should grab if, for some crazy reason, you don't want to download it all. ALSO FREE ON AMAZON PRIME.

10) Beach House - Depression Cherry
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

This album is a slow burn masterpiece. Songs just drape and drip themselves over you until they're part of you. And you find you have to listen to it. "Sparks" is the one that got me first. A mess of sound at the start followed by a piercing guitar line and then, what is that? An organ or something? It's a forest for your ears to wander. "PPP" flirts with being a Washed Out song for a bit... and that's almost never a bad thing. Overall, it's just a wonderful listen and sounds remarkably like nothing else on this year's list.

9) Dr. Dre - Compton
Second Opinion: Consequence of Sound

So, Bill Kurtis has somehow had a speaking role on White Stripes and Dandy Warhols albums and its his tones that welcome us to Compton, Dr. Dre's latest final album. And then the bars of "Talk About It" kicks in and this, children is why people in 1993 were all over Dr. Dre. Dre brings all his friends and cuts the skit interstitials that were funny only the first couple times on 90s albums (save for a rather dark murder interlude in Loose Cannons). Kendrick Lamar is here a bunch (more on him later) since if you don't have Kendrick Lamar on your album, you should probably hold your release until 2016 (lookin' at you Kanye...). "Genocide" is my favorite of the bunch, though he's fantastic on all his tracks. Dre still knows when to take the lead and when to let the supporting cast have at. I have no idea what he told Snoop Dogg before he did his part at the beginning of "One Shot One Kill," but this is not the Snoop people have become accustomed to and WOW. For me, that track is only outdone by "Medicine Man," where Eminem walks into the room and destroys everything in his wake (and claims to have done it in one take.) It would be easy to call this "vintage" Dr. Dre, but it's so in the moment that, really, a vintage tag makes it sound too much like a throwback instead the work of one of the best performer/producers we've ever had.

8) Modest Mouse - Strangers to Ourselves
Second Opinion:  Entertainment Weekly

There are some bands that, for one reason or another, have a sound that is timeless. Portishead. Oasis. And, yes, Modest Mouse. You could probably drop any of their albums into any recent time period and it "fits" the scene. After a long layoff, they're back in fine form both in songs and whacked out song titles (thank the good people at SB Nation for this post, by the way). I struggle to find a bad song here, though "Shit in Your Cut" probably leads the pack for me with it's amazing guitar line that builds to a tremendous payoff. "Pistol (A. Cunanan, MIami, FL 1996)" is the one that I said "huh" to at first and then warmed up to perhaps too much for a song that is first-person narrated by a famous killer. Album closer "Of Course We Know" is also tremendous and thunderous and all the loud adjectives. Except for when it's quiet. Whatever. Again, easy to put a vintage tag here... but why? It is now.

7) Belle and Sebastian - Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
Second Opinion: AV Club

Nothing vintage about this at all. Belle and Sebastian adds an infectious dance beat throughout in the process of creating the smartest pop you could imagine. It's honestly hard not to throw your hands in the air listening to "The Party Line," for instance. "Allie" asks questions of the girl who's a mess over world events (not an untimely theme in 2015, folks...), but instead of despair, it's almost imploring her to get up and out to have some fun. Maybe it's a carryover from first track "Nobody's Empire" and its call "to leave that vision of hell to the dying." In fact, there is a "live for the moment" theme running throughout, from musing over breakups in "Perfect Couples" to "Play for Today" and stunning closer "Today (This Army's for Peace)," which is actually the one moment on the album where it's as though the party is ending and the mess that is this modern world is outside the doors of the club and ugh. In good news for all of us, we can just cue up "Enter Sylvia Plath," which isn't just one of the year's best overall songs, but would fit right in on any dance floor where Avicii and Calvin Harris toss their mixes.

6) Carly Rae Jepsen - E*MO*TION
Second opinion: Pretty Much Amazing

You're reading this right and you absolutely need to read every word of the second opinion link up there. Then you need to download this if you haven't already. Carly and her production team openly said that instead of concentrating on surrounding big pop hits like "Call Me Maybe" with a bunch of "meh" pop filler that, instead, they wanted to make the best pop album. If they didn't, they came awfully close. The album starts fast with "Run Away With Me," which is absolutely not positioned as a question and much more as a call to flipping action. Yes, there's the candy of "I Really Like You" that stays in your head all day. And Night. And tomorrow. But, one track later, you get "Gimmie Love," which starts off sounding like it's going to be your standard more-syrupy pop number before building and building to, dare I say, musical perfection? "Boy Problems" is the breakup song Taylor Swift probably secretly wishes she could pull off; Jepsen brings enough sass in the song that Swift would have to spend a summer rehearsing to properly pull off. My favorite? "Your Type," which is a delicious piece of pop candy that perfectly captures the feeling of realizing you're existing in the friend zone for someone and nothing, even making the year's most surprisingly amazing album, is going to change that person's mind.

5) Chvrches - Every Open Eye
Second Opinion: AV Club

Chvrches first album, The Bones of What You Believe, was huge. No, really... the band talked about how many tracks went into every song. So many sounds. They compared that to the massive hits of the 1980s that influence them so much... and found most of those songs had, say, eight parts layered together. It wouldn't be accurate to call Every Open Eye "stripped down." On the contrary, they sound bigger and better than ever. Lauren Mayberry comes out swinging with swagger and, considering many of these songs are about a relationship of hers gone south, isn't too much of a surprise. She is no wilting flower. "Leave a Trace," described by the singer as a musical middle finger, displays everything the band does well in spades: smart lyrics with an absolutely perfect hook. "Empty Threat" is one of the year's best pop songs in a year that delivered them by the barrel. The album's centerpiece, "Clearest Blue" is the one, though. Simple enough in construction, Mayberry's lyrics take center stage as the song builds and builds to finally asking "will you meet me more than halfway?" and spilling over into a drop that... to quote a friend "does not get old and may never." It's no secret I love this band and it still remains tantalizing what heights they might reach.

4) The Decemberists - What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
Second Opinion: Rolling Stone

Another band that has been around the block, but continues to deliver. And they get right to it on "The Singer Addresses His Audience." Music fans tend to feel a sense of ownership over the bands they love and, when those bands change, the results aren't always warmly received by fans. Here, singer Colin Meloy goes for it with "we had to change some to belong to you..." Throughout, the band brings the songcraft they've been known for throughout their careers sans a lot of the pretension of epic songs and concepts. "Philomena," for instance, is a simple ode to that time-honored practice of oral stimulation. "Make You Better," on the other hand, is an amazing track that brings in the talents of Rachel Flotard and Kelly Hogan on backing vocals that, unlike Coldplay's aforementioned treatment of Tove Lo, brings their voices and harmonies front-and-center. Meloy plays an equal role as both of them and the result is a song that pays you back with every listen. Fourteen songs leaves plenty of room for drag and it just doesn't happen here. It's the end of the album that slays you, though. The album gets its ever-so-perfect-name-for-these-times from next-to-last track 12/17/12, the day President Obama addressed the nation in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. Meloy has said it was his reflections on the events while looking at his own child at home. It is the perfect song, because for all of his feelings, it's so easy to flip it to what a Sandy Hook parent may have been thinking. It tears your heart out. Perhaps, then, it's fitting that the album closer is "A Beginning Song." "Let's commence to coordinate our signs/Get them square to rights/Condescend the calmest riot in your mind/Find yourself in time," Meloy sings. Maybe it is time for a reset. Where does he settle? "And the light, bright light/It's all around me." Hope in this world? We'll take it.

Let's just pause right here. Take a breath. The next three are not only the year's top three, but, honestly, even in a year with so much good music, rise so far above the pack. These three are transcendent. I may never stop listening to any of them.

3) Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

Have you heard it's a little weird to be black in America right now? All the protests, all the news coverage and, for me, the voice that made me think the most was Kendrick Lamar's. If the album has a fault, it's that it's a bit long. But... what if every minute of it is good? Lamar covers so much ground ground here and he's not afraid to go right at the core issues he's facing and, hopefully, we're facing. Sure, he surrounds it with jazz-infused instrumentation and straight up party songs like "These Walls," but hard to listen to "u" and its repeat of "Lovin' you is complicated!" without spending some real time thinking about what you're hearing and how, smart as he is, Lamar doesn't have a lot of answers. I could write about "The Blacker the Berry" here, but 1) you'd be better off going and listening to it again and 2) it wouldn't do anything but cover ground that others already have (here's an example). He wrestles with his own demons throughout the album, but he's happy to delve into those of the world around him, notably on "King Kunta," which is one of the most accessible tracks on here and with the simplest of beats and surrounding production, let Kendrick do everything he's good at in under four minutes. "Aw yeah fuck the judge, I made it past 25 and there I was..." Lamar raps on the track. There's a lot in lines like that and come throughout the album. Kendrick wants you like his music, but he absolutely wants you to think along with him. It's the rare album of the perfect performer, conscious that it's his moment and, as it happens, that moment might just be a big moment in history. Hopefully, as he raps on the song that gets its name from the line, "we gonna be alright!"

2) Lana del Rey - Honeymoon
Second Opinion: Idolator
I was effusive with praise over last year's Ultraviolence (my album of the year) and it is here I begin. I believe, no matter how long your band stays together or you make albums, that there is a window of creativity that you only get to occupy once. It doesn't mean you only make good songs in that window. Pearl Jam's "Sirens" is a recent example of how they still can bring it even if it sounds like some of the other songs are rote. Lana del Rey put out Honeymoon a year after Ultraviolence. She is at peak creativity right now and if you aren't taking notice, don't worry, this music is going to be amazing a generation from now. Orchestral swells abound throughout the album. There are so many subtle things. I think I'm lucky that I travel a lot and had a night time flight where I could put this on and just zone out and listen, because it almost takes that to let things bubble to the surface and then pull you under their spell. "Music to Watch Boys To," at least, grabs a little quicker, but it's still a slow burn throughout. That's followed by "Terrence Loves You," which is not a pick me up song. It's dark and sad and it's everything you've ever felt when that song comes on and reminds you of your ex and it's absolutely unfair how good a song it is. I'm not joking. It's striking in its instrumentation (mainly sparse save for an amazingly cathartic bridge that quotes David Bowie). The lyrics are heartbreaking in topic and their honesty: "But I lost myself when I lost you, but I still got jazz when I've got those blues/ and I lost myself when I lost you, and I still get trashed, darling, when I hear your tunes..." Haven't dated a musician like Lana has but yeah, been there. A sexy synth line opens "Art Deco," which notes (correctly) "A little party never hurt no one..." "Salvatore" is a great tune that would warrant more discussion if I didn't have to talk about "24," which is so clearly the Bond theme that for some reason wasn't used for the movie. The song to keep? That would be "The Blackest Day." Another breakup song, it's almost more about bad decisions in the aftermath with a chorus of "lookin' for love in all the wrong places, oh my god." However, it's "in all the wrong places, oh my god" that gets repeated... a cry for help? A cry of ecstasy? Both? No wonder so many results pop up when you search just that line on Twitter. It was going to be the first repeat album of the year winner in this space. And then this happened:

1) Grimes - Art Angels
Second Opinion: Pretty Much Amazing

Imagine if you built your house. I don't mean hired a contractor. I mean you, yourself, built it. Maybe you had a friend come over for an hour to help you paint a wall. Maybe another friend helped install some wiring in one room. The rest? All you. How would your house look? That's what Claire Boucher did here, fed up with (primarily male) producers taking her hands off the dials or telling her to bring in someone to do something. And the house she built looks like the damned Taj Mahal.

Easily the most out-of-the-box killer album of the year, it also keeps on rewarding on subsequent listens. Every little noise has a purpose and, friends, there are a lot of little noises.

One of those is not Ms. Boucher herself, whose confidence is in every breath she sings throughout the album. "California," a kiss-off to Pitchfork, is everything anyone has ever wanted to say to a Pitchfork reviewer (and bear in mind Pitchfork loved this album). And the vemon is delivered in the sweetest syrup you could swallow. I wouldn't be able to get enough of this song if t wasn't for what comes after.

Immediately following "California" is "Scream," which is one of two spots on the disc a noise is not made by Grimes. Here, it's Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes and she's rapping in Mandarin and oh, my god that is not safe for work. It's insane. And exhilarating. The whole album could be summed up that way.

That is followed up by "Flesh Without Blood" and if I can only imagine musicians putting this on and deciding they're done. How do you top this? A song Boucher has said is about a friendship gone bad, it could also easily be a response to fair-weather fans who called her a sellout after "Go," where she mocks their criticisms in verse before killing them in the chorus, asking to be let go. And that's nothing compared to "Kill v Maim" a few tracks later where Boucher adopts a cheerleader's timbre to chant "B-E-H-A-V-E aggressive!" taunting those who have treated her like a little girl in the studio before exclaiming "Don't behave, oh don't be hateful!"

The title track should basically become Montreal's official anthem. It might be the best thing to happen to Montreal this year and, bear in mind, the Habs are 19-5-3 as of this writing. I cannot even imagine being at her recent performance there when she closed the show with this song. Later on the album, Janelle Monae shows up for "Venus Fly," which has enough bass to become an OPEC-style cartel for the resource. "Oh? You needed bass? Pay Grimes, please."

There is absolutely nothing wrong on this album. The things that are right -- pretty much the entire body of work -- are enough to change the game about what we define as pop and dance and all the rest. It's stop-you-in-your-tracks good. I have barely listened to anything else for a month and it's not getting old. I look forward to parts of my day where I can put it on. It's that kind of album. It deserves at least the top of the list.


exactwords at gmail said...

Great list! I came here from your comment on Largehearted Boy. You write well about music--I'd read your blog if you posted regularly on music you like.

I was glad you see someone give Lana little love on their list too--that's a great album and it's not making any lists. I think it feels less special to people because it came out so quickly after Ultraviolence.

Also agree with everything you write about Carly's album, it's really pop perfection. I mean, people need to get past the preconceptions.

I agree with most of your list, honestly, though I do not get all the universal love for Grimes. I really do not. That album really doesn't do a thing for me. Obviously, I'm missing something, but I've tried it over and over and just blah.

Three album suggestions for you, if you haven't heard them, from 2015: Empress Of "Me", Wolf Alice "My Love is Cool" and Torres "Sprinter".

Are you going to do a favorite songs list???

Happy listening!

Jay said...

Thanks for swinging by! I wish I had the time to write about music more. Maybe some day. And thanks for the recs. I actually have the Torres album and I do like a bunch of songs on it. As for the Grimes love, what I always think is great about these lists is how we all come at it differently. For me, I just love hearing what people are into and it helps me discover new things. Never a wrong answer in music! :-)

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