#1: Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
Artists like Kendrick Lamar only come around once in a generation. Willing to not only push boundaries but to blast through them into the stratosphere, Lamar has become the tastemaker, shapeshifter, and bonafide leader of experimental popular music in our time. Many cast doubt upon the possibility of his incredible 2012 breakout album Good Kid, Mad City being followed with anything of comparable brilliance; then To Pimp a Butterfly came out.
To be sure, Butterfly is an altogether less immediate album, less appealing at first listen. But buried within dense layers formed of practically every form of African American music, Lamar’s third album is woven with the fabric of genius. Keeping guest appearances, name-drops, pop culture references, and witty one-liners to the minimum, Lamar eschews modern hip-hop convention and embraces wild, political street poetry and absurdist black comedy. In fact, tracks like King Kunta and Alright have managed the enviable task of converting masses of erstwhile mainstream listeners toward art rap, imbibed as it is with the spirit of Gil Scott-Heron’s wild poetry yet sold as catchy rap singles.
Messages of unity, self-worth, spirituality, political empowerment, and social responsibility comprise the bulk of Lamar’s subject matter. Musically, Butterfly is a kaleidoscope, dizzying in spectrum and brilliance, one minute shuffling along bebop lines, the other minute blasting us with aggressive punk hop, early-’90s G-funk, or laid back R&B. It is his inimitable talent as creative director that makes Lamar so unique and so valuable; few rappers working today are capable of making records such as this, already a strong musical influence on David Bowie’s latest work. Lamar crosses boundaries musical, lyrical, and spiritual; he is a time travelling truth teller born to spin rhymes and stun audiences. To Pimp a Butterfly cemented his place in our culture once and for all, and the album will be viewed in hindsight as a watershed moment for urban music in the 21st century.
#2: Drake - If You're Reading This, It's Too Late
A mixtape that made megabucks, IYRTITL was the moment the world realised that Drake can’t miss. At 17 long songs, it could have been Drake’s entire year, but instead the tape was shortly followed by an immensely one-sided Meek Mill beef, an acclaimed joint project with Future, and the release of Drake’s most successful single yet. His next solo album Views From the Six didn’t drop this year, and, frankly, it didn’t matter. Drake ran 2015 anyway.
The calibre of music here was such that many of the songs - Know Yourself, Energy, 10 Bands, Star67 - entered immediately into the cultural canon of our time. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing them blasted from car windows, couldn’t check into Twitter without seeing a Drake quote or reference, couldn’t go to a club without the 6 God blasting through the soundsystem at some point in the evening.
And for good reason. There is a completely individual aesthetic to the songs on IYRTITL, where the beats are sparser, cleaner, and more minimalistic, while Drake’s rapping is more aggressive and confident, and his singing is - for the most part - downplayed in favour of his patented half-sung rap delivery. Everything works, and Drake sounds like he knows he’s the biggest rapper around. A mixtape of this calibre and influence is the sort of thing only artists with the status of Jay Z or Lil Wayne at their peak could ever have accomplished. It’s almost impossible to imagine Views From the Six being a disappointment when it drops; all reigns must end, but for now, Drake is king.
#3: Jamie xx - In Colour
(Excerpted from our June review.)
Ever since the opening sub bass rumble and explosively melodic beat of Islands on the self-titled xx debut, it has been clear that Jamie Smith is a unique talent. Smith’s debut solo LP In Colour ties together a few of the recent singles he has released on Young Turks, such as Girl and its b-side Sleep Sound, with a collection of new works (although notably absent is his still-great 2014 single All Under One Roof Raving). Most of the tracks here are instrumentals, and of course it is in this territory away from the cooing harmonies of his usual accompanists, Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim of The xx, that he meets his true test as a solo artist.
Tracks such as those presented together here will allay any doubt; Smith’s innovative talent is constantly evident, from the album-opening ominous bass sweep of the incredible Gosh, quickly followed by martial hand-claps that seem to announce the return of the king of electronic music in the UK, to the sublime arpeggiated steel drum melody on Obvs (something of a trademark instrument that Smith has wisely continued to use) which is layered and built upon masterfully. In fact, all of Smith’s sonic trademarks from both his work with The xx and his solo releases are present here too, and yet he has managed to pull off the enviable task of redefining himself creatively and sonically without losing the individuality he developed on former releases.
With a singular knack for identifying the unique strength of each piece of music he creates and seemingly re-building each composition around that strength - re-crafting every other element to serve the defining hook - Jamie xx is a formidable producer and one who will undoubtedly go on to reach even greater heights than those this record grasps.
Smith has always worn his influences on his sleeve, and they are omnipresent here, too. From sonic allusions to early–2000s hip-hop production à la The Neptunes and Timbaland, to his frequently obvious tips of the hat to the house music he holds so dear, he is undoubtedly a polymath of modern music. Laced throughout with vocal samples from '90s rave culture documentaries, in its finest moments In Colour is a passionate and patriotic look at electronic music and club culture past and present; full of life, exciting, and emotionally intense like the best of The xx’s music and yet bubbling with a new and irreverent joy, In Colour certainly shows that things aren’t so black and white after all.
#4: Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
In 2015, Sufjan Stevens found his voice again. A flawless return to the strength of his early career highlights like 2004’s Seven Swans, Carrie & Lowell is centred around Stevens’ childhood memories of his mother and stepfather. In his wafer-thin whisper of a voice, Stevens unearths painful emotion as sweetly as ever, lending a wide-eyed sense of innocence lost to tracks like Should Have Known Better and All of Me Wants All of You. It’s a striking departure from the electronic rock misadventures of his last studio album, 2010’s The Age of Adz.
Here, on album highlight Eugene, Stevens sings “For the rest of your life/ Admitting the past is behind me/ Now I’m drunk and afraid/ Wishing the world would go away/ What’s the point of singing songs/ If they’ll never even hear you?”, and the sound of his fragile falsetto so close to breaking under the burden of the past is singularly beautiful. In many ways, Carrie & Lowell is so intensely personal that it feels like a peek into Stevens’ journal, a rare glimpse inside a deeply introverted mind.
Recorded largely in Stevens’ Brooklyn home studio and performed on quiet acoustic instruments with little pomp and ceremony, Carrie & Lowell contains some of the Stevens’ finest songs. It’s a pleasure to hear such a gifted singer-songwriter return to his roots, musically and thematically. These songs are delicate missives from a downcast mind, spiralling like snowflakes through fading sunlight as night takes hold.
#5: Battles - La Di Da Di
(Excerpted from our September review.)
This is not an album of singles, nor is it a collection of songs which will make much sense when heard out of context. It is impossible to compare a band as singular as Battles to any artist who does not dwell within the alien universe these New Yorkers have created on each and every record. What’s more, without the softening effect of a Braxton or a Newman providing a vocal melody, we are left with Battles at their most basic. As such, these strange and wild snippets of instrumental music will be un-relatable for most and challenging even for dedicated Battles fans.
Yet the songs on La Di Da Di are fully-realised tapestries by three of contemporary music’s most stunningly talented instrumentalists. For once, the pretentious moniker of art rock can be sensibly applied to an act. Battles function as boundary-pushing pioneers, willing to drag their instruments beyond the normal limits; willing to make music so unconventional it is likely to be misunderstood by most. The immense talent and dedication that speak through every one of these songs will remain only for those with the inclination to truly listen, and Battles seem to be just fine with that.
Innocuous in name only, La Di Da Di is an intense album. A tide of doomsday distortion and tribal rhythm begin Tricentennial, a track that resolves in a pounding twist on surf rock made by evil robots. Meanwhile, Non-Violence counts amongst Battles’ heaviest moments, as wailing sirens and chaotic keyboard harshness being the track to a furious, rapidly repeating passage that recalls the fantastic instrumental breakdown of Atlas, while screaming guitar effects soar overhead. This is visceral music, totally wired into our body’s love of rhythm and our brain’s love of stimulus.
Battles make, by and large, extraordinarily inaccessible music. This record is the sort of cerebral experience usually delegated to the high-end headphones of a minimalist architect, too strange to hold the attention of most listeners. Yet Battles’ commitment to their unique aesthetic is to be highly commended in these all-too-generic days of niche genres and easily-definable movements. It is truly a pleasure to live in a world where three musicians have the imagination and talent required to create music this confusingly, delightfully, bizarrely extraordinary.
#6: The Weeknd - Beauty Behind the Madness
(Excerpted from our August review.)
At one point when he first debuted, many expected Abel Tesfaye to branch out into sounds reaching far beyond those of his first songs. Instead, his work over the past half-decade has been a series of refinements and alterations of his original formula, with varying degrees of success. Beauty Behind the Madness is Tesfaye’s best work because it mostly gets the balance of elements right while experimenting just far enough to push his limits as an artist. There are sure-fire hits, driving anthems, and a few dull yawns, but these songs are a mostly-successful collection of heady pop cuts for the modern age.
Now there can be no doubt what The Weeknd will do next; Tesfaye’s mystique as contemporary music’s nascent alternative genius has faded. In its place stands a verifiable star who commands attention critically and commercially by confidently occupying a niche he invented and perfected himself. The creative musical underground has lost a trailblazer, but mainstream pop music has gained a front-runner. Tesfaye's audience will continue to grow on the strength of tracks like Can’t Feel My Face and Earned It, while the singer will likely be remembered as an artist who transitioned from genuinely exciting pop experimentalism into a bankable commercial force with a bit of a dark side.
After all, there is plenty to enjoy on Beauty Behind the Madness and very little that is bad. Yet alongside the euphoric joy there is also the bitter taste of missed opportunity and altered aspirations. Fittingly, Tesfaye’s career has followed a trajectory not unlike that of the mind-bending chemicals he loves to sing about: a mad rush, a heady high, a vague unease, unforeseen upset, fear, loathing, and the faded self that slowly disappears. A changed man stands before a thronging crowd.
#7: Adele - 25
There’s a wry humour in the words Adele chose for the lead single and opening track of her third album: “Hello, it’s me.” There’s a deliberate sense of recognition and reconnection, both in the lyrics we hear and the way in which they are presented. Mellow, minor piano chords echo out in the form of a slow ballad, while Adele’s stratospheric voice ducks beneath the dynamic ceiling. During the emotive chorus, the songstress finally breaks free of the verse’s tension, as she soars over a pounding half-note rhythm. Adele roars as passionately as ever, wisely keeping the simple musical backdrop sparse as her vocals are left to take the spotlight, wild yet tame as only Adele’s voice can be.
In many ways, Hello is a simultaneously brave and safe choice for a lead single. Brave in the sense that Adele is clearly making no pretensions of retreading familiar ground - Hello could have easily sat alongside Set Fire to the Rain on 21 - yet here those familiar techniques are unashamedly used to usher in a new personal and creative period in a dramatically matured artist’s life.
Of course, Hello was the stratospheric single that made 25 one of the biggest albums in our lifetime, shattering first-week sales records. From the familiarity of Hello and late-album highlight Million Years Ago to the unswervingly-mainstream Taylor Swift-isms of Send My Love (To Your New Lover) and Water Under the Bridge, a few things are made clear. One, in 2015 Adele Adkins has no problem being considered a pop artist. Two, the term comfort zone need not be a four letter phrase. And three, there a few musicians working today with the raw talent and culture-crossing appeal of Adele.
Bordering on over-produced, and obviously heavily influenced by the bevy of American hitmakers brought in to assist in its recording, 25 is not a perfect album. But it is the moment where 2011’s most unlikely earth-shattering success story became 2015’s most predictable one; a key shift in the perception of Adele, changed as she is from a promising outsider forcing her way into the big leagues to the queen of pop reclaiming her rightful throne.
The soul, jazz, and alternative elements that made 21 so brilliant are largely gone, but 25 is intended to be less of a retread and more of a reinvention than at first it seems. In many ways, Adele’s three 19, 21, and 25 albums closely parallel Kanye West’s The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation trilogy in artistry, intent, and evolution. West abandoned that theme on his fourth record, as I suspect Adele will, yet Graduation was a crowning commercial achievement; the moment West embraced pop. 25 is the same thing for a very different artist: an unashamed celebration; the coming-out party of a closeted popstar.
#8: Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
Perennial outsiders Godspeed You! Black Emperor have never been sticklers for convention. After returning in 2010 from a seven year hiatus, 2012’s brilliant comeback album Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! was surreptitiously released simply by appearing as a for-sale merchandise item one night at a gig in Boston. 2015’s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress arrived with similarly little fanfare via SoundCloud in March, a surprising addition to the oeuvre of a band who never seemed to want to fit in.
On Asunder, the post rock legends gave us as strong a suite of songs as ever, continuing largely in the Allelujah! mould while bringing a new sense of immediacy to their familiar long-form compositions. Opener Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’ explodes with a furiosity that is more akin to modern-era Swans than vintage GYBE; there’s even a guitar solo, delightfully unexpected as it is. And though the middle two songs of this four-part suite explore drone-based ambience in the same vein as much of their early work, the 13-minute epic finale of Piss Crowns are Trebled ramps up the intensity and ultimately becomes one of the band’s finest ever moments on wax.
GYBE are ultimately destined never to fit into conventional parameters. They exist on their own terms, broadly related to bands like Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky, but factually existing worlds apart. Asunder is an album of immaculate texture, contrast, and emotional weight. Alien in all the right ways, nobody else can make music quite like this.
#9: Bob Dylan - Shadows in the Night
At the age of 74, Bob Dylan once again asserted his brilliance with a gloriously unexpected triumph. Comprised entirely of standards which Frank Sinatra at one point left his indelible mark upon, Shadows in the Night was recorded by Dylan live in Capitol Records’ legendary Studio B. Accompanied by five of the finest studio musicians working today, along with a small and beautifully understated orchestra, Dylan stretches his famously limited voice to its most gruff outer edges, eking the spirit of his hero Sinatra out of every tender syllable.
Nobody could have expected results so uniformly stunning. The well-past-midnight atmosphere of the hushed band brings Dylan to the forefront, where he does commendable justice to beautiful compositions like I’m a Fool to Want You and Autumn Leaves. In many ways, Dylan had not sounded so present and clear in decades, intimate in our headphones as he stood in the lone spotlight of a dark room. And over the course of this short album, some of the finest musical compositions of the past century experience new life under Dylan’s respectful, careful direction.
The arrangements on Shadows in the Night are almost heartbreakingly beautiful; lush without being pompous, classical without being trite. We are rarely privy to modern records so laboriously and richly crafted. This record is a fitting tribute from one great to another, a love letter to a bygone era, and above all else a glorious celebration of the immortal beauty of wonderful music.
#10: Deerhunter - Fading Frontier
They may still the shy kids in your science class with the long fringe and the ratty jeans, but at least this time Deerhunter took a shower before school. And ultimately, this band of indie punk misfits fit in a little better in 2015. Fading Frontier is lighter, airier, warmer, and more accessible than anything the band has done before, embracing dream pop and commercial radio influence to unexpected success.
Their first release since frontman Bradford Cox’s near-fatal 2014 car accident, Fading Frontier reflects in many ways the spiritual turning point Cox spoke about during his recovery. A long way from the confrontational noise rock of their last release, 2013’s Monomania, 2015 saw a tamer Deerhunter than ever before. There are even hooks here, cloaked in lo-fi atmospherics and experimental flourishes, but present nevertheless. The familiar insular venom of Cox's lyrics remain, but the impact his words is totally different when sung this way.
Standout single Breaker is a brilliant slice of alternative pop, floating by with easy, dazed summertime charm in the vein of Vetiver’s best work. Other songs, like Take Care and Snakeskin, tackle indie-meets-electro pop and upbeat pseudo-psychedelic DIY rock, respectively. It’s remarkable to hear the band who came into our lives mumbling into microphones and assaulting us with waves of feedback dialling it back so effectively, but Fading Frontier ranks up there with Deerhunter’s best. Don’t call it selling out, call it getting older, wiser, and more at ease.
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