It’s that time of the year again. Time to look back to the previous year and see what we learned from it. If we did.
One of the things people like to do when looking back to year is comprise lists, as it supposedly puts such vast and complex gestalts like ‘Everything that happened during the time period it takes for our planet to drift around its nearest star in the emptiness of space’ into nice, clear and simple framework. So instead of trying to understand the expansive series of events as in its entirety, we like to put things into more or less relevant lists, like “Top 10 Movie Reboots”, “Top 25 Celebrity Scandals Caused by Inability to Understand How Twitter Works” or “Top 20 Animals With Wigs that Would Probably Be Better U.S. Presidents than Donald Trump“.
So here’s my offering: The Best Albums of 2015, the albums that most tickled my ear bones. I would like to point out that despite the word “Best” appearing on the title, these are in fact not the ‘objectively best’ albums of the year, whether you’d rate that by their Metacritic scores, sales figures, action figures or any other arbitrary means of measurement. These are simply my favourite albums of the year.
So here we go:
15. Steven Wilson: Hand. Cannot. Erase.
Genre: Progressive Rock
Produced: Steven Wilson
Released: February 27, 2015
I have never been too into Steven Wilson’s stuff. His band Porcupine Tree has never quite tickled my fancy, and I thought his previous solo album Raven That Refused to Sing, while enjoyable, bowed a bit too deep towards the old prog masters of the 70s, and simultaneously ended mooning at my general direction.
Now, on his fourth solo album Hand. Cannot. Erase. Steven Wilson modernizes his sound with traces of electronica and ambiance to fit the lyrical shift from Poe-esque, Victorian ghost stories to urban tales of modern loneliness, inspired by the story of Joyce Carol Vincent. There are still some parts that draw from 70s progressive rock so heavily that Yes could probably sue for copyright infringement, but now the elements are in balance, giving room for Wilson’s own, much more intriguing voice. Hand. Cannot. Erase. creates something bigger, something brighter that what could be achieved with mere mimicry.
Special note: the 10-minute epic “Routine” has an absolutely heartbreaking animated music video, which can be seen below. Bring your own tissues.
14. Deafheaven: New Bermuda
Genre: Black Metal/Post-Metal
Produced: Jack Shirley
Released: October 2, 2015
In 2013, Deafheaven made the best metal album of the year. That is not as much of an opinion as it is a statistical fact, as every music critic regardless of their genre was lining up to shower their praises at the band’s sophomore record Sunbather; a rare wonder of a metal album that managed to break the conventions while still managing to win over the approval of the more ‘Rock Police’ type of metalheads.
Now, on their much anticipated follow-up New Bermuda the band shows it has nothing to prove for anyone anymore. The elements blend perfectly into each other, from the furious black metal blast beats to the atmospheric dream pop guitars and melancholy piano hooks. It is the beauty and the beast both rolled into one, seamless package.
While it might not go down in history as the landmark Sunbather did, New Bermuda is still a stellar show.
13. Joanna Newsom: Divers
Genre: Indie Folk, Baroque Pop
Producer: Joanna Newsom
Released: October 23, 2015
I know I said some pretty mean things in my earlier review of Divers. Even after having months to grow more accustomed to it, Joanna Newsom’s voice still sometimes reminds me of nails on the chalkboard. For gods’ sake, even her iTunes page describes her voice as “divisive”, and that’s the part that’s supposed to be the marketing speech.
I did also say many good things, but people tend to remember the bad stuff. So here’s my opinion in a nutshell: despite Newsom’s shortcomings as a vocalist I cannot help but appreciate her ability as a composer, a multi-instrumentalist and a lyricist. There’s just so many beautiful layers of sound and words intricately woven together that the sometimes griping vocal parts are just a faint background noise.
Read the full review here.
12. Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love
Genre: Indie Rock/Post-Punk
Producer: John Goodmanson
Released: January 20, 2015
Even in a world where every fucking band short Nirvana are reuniting in hopes of reviving the revenues after the album sales decline of the internet era, pretty much nobody was predicting Sleater-Kinney to come back. One of the most influential punk bands of the late 90s and early 00s, the Washington trio released their first album in 10 years, with no forewarning whatsoever. One could presume that this is due to the decade-long gap that surely has given time for the band to grow rusty and apart, and that the new material just couldn’t hold up to the old classics. Well, that would be a severe mistake, as on their new record S-K is sharper than ever: whether it’s the catchier anthems like “A New Wave” or the more abrasive tracks like “Bury Our Friends”.
It’s almost as the last ten years never happened: as far as Sleater-Kinney is concerned, it’s still 2005, well, apart from the wrinkles, better phones and a band Facebook page.
11. Jamie xx: In Colour
Produced: Four Tet, Jamie Smith, Yektrobeatz
Released: 29 May 2015
When a member of a music group goes on to make a solo record, there is always a distinct possibility of the outcome sounding like watered-down derivative of your own group. On his solo debut In Colour Jamie xx, previously known as a member of the minimalistic indie pop duo The xx, seems to like playing with this idea: the rest of The xx feature as quest artists on the tracks, and the album cover features roughly one fourth of their usual “X” logo.
However, Jamie can afford such cheekiness, as fortunately his solo project does not succumb to the problem described above: In Colour is not just a diluted version of what The xx does. While the elements like the minimalist soundscape, soothing singing, and the distinct, echo-heavy use of piano and guitar are familiar to any xx fan, and while many songs, such as “Stranger in a Room” and “Loud Places”, could be straight out from either of the The xx albums, In Colour does have its own voice; the energetic “The Rest is Noise” could not exist on The xx record. It is not a part of the beauty that The xx does, but a natural extension.
10. Enter Shikari: The Mindsweep
Producer: Enter Shikari, Dan Weller
Released: January 14, 2015
Ever since their formation the British band Enter Shikari have combined post-hardcore with electronic elements with varying levels of success. However, the pieces finally clicked together on their last album, 2012’s Flash Flood of Colour. So now, on their fourth full-length record The Mindsweep they did what was left to do with a well-working combination: they perfected it.
The band’s curious crossover concoction is still the same mixture of hardcore punk, dubstep, drum and bass, and the kitchen sink; the vocalist Rou Reynolds still sings, screams, growls, raps and sometimes just plain talks about political subjects with the finesse and subtlety of a sledgehammer. The albums shows the whole, incredibly vast musical spectrum of the band without feeling disjointed or ambivalent: towards the end of the album the calmly swinging “Bank of England”, the visceral mathcore track “There’s a Price On Your Head” and the sombre piano ballad “Dear Future Historians…” all follow each other without a hitch.
I’m not sure if ‘beautiful’ is a good adjective when describing a hodgepodge like this; if not, we can just settle on ‘beautifully eclectic’.
9. Tame Impala: Currents
Genre: Psychedelic Pop/R&B
Producer: Kevin Parker
Released: 17 July, 2015
The Australian psychedelic rock band Tame Impala came into the scene with their 2010 debut album Innerspeaker, a record that sounded like what The Beatles might sound like now if, instead of disbanding in 1970, they would have just locked themselves into a bunker to do drugs. On their third album Currents the band completely reinvented themselves: their trademark rock sound was uprooted in favour of more synth-driven pop and R&B; and the previously indecipherable word salad is now replaced with coherent lyrics that can be related to by humans instead of random word generator algorithms. However, their psychedelic heart remains, through the ethereal synths, funky bass and curious details like the fake record skipping on “Let It Happen” or the banjo on “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”.
Frontman Kevin Parker, who basically alone wrote, recorded and produced the album, shows some his most stellar songwriting yet, and has meticulously crafted a record that stands out even when compared to Tame Impala’s previous, highly-praised discography.
8. The Punch Brothers: Phosphorescent Blues
Genre: Progressive Bluegrass
Producer: T Bone Burnett
Released: January 27, 2015
I’ve never been able to get into country or bluegrass music. It just felt like I owned too few firearms, farm animals, pickup trucks and family tree tangles caused by inbreeding to really understand the mindset behind the genre. ‘Progressive bluegrass’ seemed like an oxymoron, sort of like ‘deafening silence’, ‘irregular pattern’ or ‘likable reality TV star’. However, The Punch Brothers proved me wrong. Their technical prowess, the seamless synergy of their mandolins, banjos, fiddles and whatnots is captivating, further illustrated by their pristine vocal harmonies. Most of the lyricist Chris Tile’s texts tackle dealing with the ever-present information technology of the digital age, which creates an interesting juxtaposition with the fully acoustic, chamber music-influenced instrumentation. The writing and composition are done with a beautiful attention to detail, and the few borrowed classical interludes (Claude Debussy’s “Passepied” is absolutely immaculate) fit gracefully among the original material. There might be a few lulls on The Phosphorescent Blues, but outside of those small moments the record showcases some of the most intricate and powerful songwriting this year.
7. Iron Maiden: The Book of Souls
Genre: Heavy Metal
Producer: Kevin Shirley
Released: September 4, 2015
I already said everything I needed about The Book of Souls in my earlier review, but assuming you do not memorize everything I write by heart (and you shouldn’t), here’s a brief recap: instead of growing old and frail Iron Maiden seems to follow the warrior monk sensei model of aging, only growing more skillful and capable with age: the album is written, performed and produced better than anything they have done in the last ten years. There are thankfully few excess minutes for an hour-and-a-half hunk of metal, and the are far outweighed by the heavy-hitters like “Shadows of the Valley” and “The Great Unknown”.
Overall it is a welcome addition to the Maiden discography, holding the candle successfully to their 40-year career, while also pushing some new boundaries.
Read the full review here.
6. Hiatus Kaiyote: Choose Your Weapon
Produced: Hiatus Kaiyote, Salaam Remi
Released: May 4, 2015
In their own words, Melbourne-based fusion group Hiatus Kaiyote makes “Multi-dimensional, polyrhythmic gangster shit”. In practice this means a multilayered mixture of different genres and eras, from 40s bop to modern dubstep and almost everything in between, be it R&B, hip-hop, funk or prog. Lyrical influences vary in similarly wild fashion, as evidenced by titles like “Jekyll”, “Swamp Thing” and “Laputa”. Abrupt shifts in time signature and tone happen so often that in many other hands the album could’ve been a train wreck. However, in the capable paws of the Kaiyote, Choose Your Weapon has more material and variety packed in 70 minutes than most artist have in all of their careers.
5. Ghost: Meliora
Genre: Heavy Metal
Producer: Klas Åhlund
Released: August 21, 2015
The Swedish metal band Ghost could be best described as “hilariously offensive”. They perform in cardinal costumes, with the singer Papa Emeritus III dressed as the Pope wearing corpse paint; musically they draw from the occultist psychedelic rock bands of the late 60s and early 70s like Blue Öyster Cult and Black Sabbath, and their lyrics are openly satanic. However, it would be a mistake to just dismiss Ghost as a comedy act, at least when it comes to their music, they are (un)dead serious.
While the previous album, the ominous and imposing Infetissumam, gave the center stage to the keyboards, Meliora puts emphasis on guitars, making the album heavier than its predecessor; riffs on tracks like “From the Pinnacle to the Pit” and “Cirice” are gruff and memorable. This accentuates the tonal differences between the grim verses and the grand and catchy choruses: combined with the outstanding songwriting, the result is an unmatched collection of unholy metal anthems with splendid pop sensibilities.
Also, +1 extra point for the best album cover of the year.
4. Florence + the Machine: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Genre: Baroque Pop
Producer: Markus Drevs
Released: 29 May, 2015
In 2011, when Florence + the Machine released their second album Ceremonials, I fell in love. The only reason I didn’t have a creepy stalker shrine devoted to Florence Welch in the basement was that we didn’t have basement. So naturally, when the band announced the follow-up record, I was a bit torn: while I was glad about the upcoming record, I kept thinking there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that the new album would live up to the expectations Ceremonials set for it. To my surprise, it kind of did.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is the most personal Florence record to date. To highlight this, the instrumentation and production are smaller in contrast to the grandiosity of the previous record; simultaneously giving more room for Welch’s magnificent voice. Now the horns, the strings, the piano and the percussion work more organically to support Welch’s vocals rather trying to compete with them, which gives the spotlight to the lyrics: the record is a collection of tales of self-destruction and heartbreak, full of big emotion ranging everywhere between flaming passion and paralyzing fear, all of which are conveyed masterfully. HBHBHB is a cathartic experience for both the artist and the listener.
As a special note I would recommend checking out the Deluxe Edition, which features the best bonus tracks of the year.
3. Mew: + –
Genre: Shoegazing/Dream Pop
Producer: Michael Beinhorn, Mew
Released: 21 April, 2015
It’s been quite a while since the the world saw a record from Mew, but after six years of silence the Danish dream pop quartet finally released a follow-up for their critically acclaimed fifth album No More Stories Are Told Today, I’m Sorry They Washed Away // No More Stories, The World Is Grey, I’m Tired, Let’s Wash Away. One could say it was worth the wait.
The band still plays to their old strengths: ethereal, high-pitched vocals and the lush keyboards paint on the canvas formed by the guitars; the usual shoegaze cocktail is spiked by the energized progressive percussion. The strategically placed faster songs like “My Complications” and “Witness” help to pace out the album’s more serene moments. It might not extend to similar extremes as the previous albums; instead, the band has focused on streamlining and condensing their sound to its core, without losing their heart in the process.
2. Grimes: Art Angels
Genre: Dance/Synthpop/Art Pop
Producer: Claire Boucher
Released: November 6, 2015
Canadian electronic artist Claire Boucher, better known as Grimes, pushed aside the veil of obscurity with her 2012 album Visions, which was an electronic experimental pop journey through insomniac hallucinations and GarageBand aesthetics. I wasn’t particularly fond of any of it; not the shoddy production; not Boucher’s high-pitched nasal voice; nor could I really say that the ‘experimental’ part of her music was a particularly successful experiment.
However, on the follow-up Art Angels, everything seems to work: Boucher has streamlined and sleaked her production and gotten rid of the most of psychedelic fluff; but saying that she’s selling out or pandering to mainstream audiences couldn’t be farther from the truth.
She still mixes influences and elements wildly and freely, forming a kaleidoscopic collage of sound: acoustic guitars, cowbells, guttural screaming, Taiwanese rapping, pitch-shifted chipmunk vocals. The end result is the poppiest, most infectiously catchy record she has ever done, and at the same time the antithesis of pop. The album has already gained an ungodly amount of accolades, and for a reason.
1. Everything Everything: Get to Heaven
Genre: Art Rock/Electronic Rock
Producer: Stuart Price
Released: 22 June, 2015
I hate to start with a cliche like ‘Third time’s the charm’, but in this case it seems more than appropriate: the British band Everything Everything have always made bittersweet pop music about horrifying subject matters, culminating on their third album Get to Heaven, on which the band present themselves more boldly and maturely than ever before.
funky guitars, offbeat hip-hop influenced drums, and disoriented ethereal synths unique blend of glitchy and catchy artpop, full of surprising little musical hooks. Vocalist and the head songwriter Jonathan Higgs stretches his voice to all directions, from slimy snarling to vivid falsetto; delivering his lyrics with a unforeseen conviction. The often upbeat music is in stark contrast with the grim lyrics: dealing with alienation, suicide bombers, government surveillance, addiction to technology, ISIS beheadings, the fear of growing old; state of humanity in general, and the anxiety it causes. “Spring/Sun/Winter/Dread” mixes together graphic ultraviolence with clever wordplay; the catchy “Regret” paints an ominous mindscape of a person slowly driven to radicalism and drastic measures, placed on top of a drum and piano groove that sounds like it would be right at home in a song by a 60’s girl group.
The dissonance between the music and lyrics grows stronger with each listen, making the technicolour pop appear treacherous and stygian, slowly eroding the listener’s soul piece by piece. Everything Everything have created a carefully constructed masterpiece.
Some honourable mentions:
Angel Haze: Into the Woods, Carly Rae Jepsen: E•MO•TION, Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly, Quiet Company: Transgressor, Unknown Mortal Orchestra: Multi-Love