My favourite albums of 2015

It really annoys me that music publications feel the need to post their annual listicles in early December. I get it – there are deadlines to be met, and the release schedule over the Christmas period is paper thin. But what if Frank Ocean drops that record he promised in the summer, or Chromatics come out of hiding? It is one of my inexplicable music-based neuroses, like that nervous feeling I get when that greyed out double quaver shows up instead of album artwork on my iTunes.

It is surely more fitting to have an end of year list at, well, the end of the year, and while the surprise Pusha T album and Lil B’s latest mammoth mixtape didn’t quite make the cut for me, at least they got the chance. This year I listened to 144 albums released in 2015 that I at least liked, several that I didn’t and countless more from years gone by. This despite having to overcome obstacles like interminably slow Chinese internet, Spotify’s useless iPhone software and a lack of a turntable.

First, some albums that I loved that I couldn’t fit neatly into a top ten:

  • The Powers that B – Death Grips
  • The Magic Whip – Blur
  • Star Wars – Wilco
  • Fading Frontier – Deerhunter
  • Panda Bear vs the Grim Reaper – Panda Bear
  • Summertime ’06 – Vince Staples
  • The Most Lamentable Tragedy – Titus Andronicus
  • Have You in my Wilderness – Julia Holter
  • Surf – Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment (ft. Chance the Rapper)
  • VEGA Intl. Night School – Neon Indian

Looking back at my choices, it seems like it’s been a very strong year for music. However, it also seems that a large amount of releases have failed to live up to expectations, leaving us with loads of decent to good music. In actuality, these records have only served to emphasise how unbelievably wonderful the really exceptional albums are.

10. Teens of Style – Car Seat Headrest

This is kind of a sneaky choice as the songs that make up this collection weren’t originally written and recorded in, or for, the year 2015. In fact, Teens of Style is the first major release from Will Toledo, a sort of creative puppet master of a project called Car Seat Headrest, on Matador Records after extensive efforts to build up buzz and acclaim through extremely lo-fi recordings posted to the internet. It came to me without that hype, it’s colourful mix of perceptive lyricism and joyous Beach Boys and Beatles style melodies striking me out of the blue.

9. Vulnicura – Bjork

The new album from Bjork came at a cool time for me. Since moving to China, I’ve tried to make an effort to get to grips with genres of music that I am less comfortable with. Aside from jazz, the one I’m making the most progress with is electronic music (though I know that is a chasm of different sub-styles I am merely on the precipice of). With the help of Venezuelan producer Arca (who I was already familiar with through his work with Kanye West and FKA Twigs), Bjork has crafted a very personal and utterly devastating journey through the breakup of her marriage backed my sparse and jarring beats that only serve to make the sadness of her voice and words that much more unbearable.

8. b’lieve i’m goin down… – Kurt Vile

The last time Kurt Vile put out a record, it was my favourite of the year. Without having much left to prove in the instrumental stakes, on his new one he has made huge strides as a writer, his lackadaisical drawl easily putting profound statements into layman’s terms. Often, the real test of a talented guitarist isn’t how many spiralling, self-aggrandising solos you can pull off. Kurt Vile shows here that behind that virtuoso ability, there is a humour and insight that is far more lasting.

7. Wildheart – Miguel

The first time I listened to ‘The Valley’, the third track from Miguel’s Wildheart, I will admit that I felt a little prudish, and I consider myself pretty open to discussions about sex. Sex is just one of the topics that Miguel tackles in the most frank and candid manner of any music I’ve heard this year. Similar subjects, usually unexplored in popular music, like male sensitivity and feelings of belonging are placed at the forefront and Miguel weaves his way through them easily, surfing an array of eclectic styles – intergalactic Prince-indebted funk, affecting soul and blissed out pop – that he seems to ride with ease.

6. No Cities to Love – Sleater-Kinney

How this band avoided my attention for so many years is beyond me. Thankfully, I caught up with them just in time for their reunion and subsequent release of their eighth album No Cities to Love – a record where they retake their place the pantheon of guitar based rock music that really means something. Following perhaps their greatest and most bewildering album The Woods (an album I now consider one of my favourites of all time) after such a lengthy hiatus is a hard ask. NCTL manages to reintroduce the band to a new generation of listeners by plundering the myriad of styles and attitudes of their previous works to create loud, thumping rock music that is vital and urgent. The album runs from the politically charged catchiness of opener ‘Price Tag’, calling back to their riot grrrl beginnings, to the stomping closer ‘Fade’, sounding closer to the sort of machismo-turned-inside-out explosiveness of what they left us with in The Woods. A special shout out to Janet Weiss – the greatest living drummer and the best since John Bonham.

5. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett

I’ve been listening to Courtney Barnett speak-sing for two years now, and it feels like she’s my best friend. The truth is I don’t know her at all. But the way she presents the mundanity of everyday life and the daydreams that float through our minds in such a witty, articulate and precise way is virtually unmatched in modern music. Backed by familiar and recognisable 90s style grunge and indie rock arrangements, with the occasional noisy and experimental flourish, Barnett produces words that seem perfect and irreplaceable with which to pepper these tight vignettes about the most relatable of subjects – travelling, hating your job, pollution, eating organic, not wanting to go out, moving house. She makes them, and the entire duration of this record, as funny, exciting and unordinary as life ought to be.

4. Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens

The music artists have made this year seems deeply personal. Sure, when is music not personal? Even within the most otherworldly concept albums, there is a sliver of the writer’s experience and memory hidden away. Even in the most seemingly isolating music, there is a piece of that artist, or a way in which they have dragged out the personal in you, the listener. Sufjan Stevens’ new, and musically understated, album pulls you into the most personal part of himself, to places and people, regrets and triumphs, embarrassments and loves, that surely no one other than Stevens should ever really know or experience. Stevens not only shows you this in heavy and haunting detail, but invites you to re-experience with him both painful and cherished glimpses of the days he spent with his troubled and tragic mother and a stepfather he would one day call a friend. As depressing as it may sound, wallowing in these with him is one of the most rewarding listens I’ve had all year.

3. I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty

Joshua Tillman, aka Father John Misty, is not afraid to go for the jugular when it comes to the world. He’s cynical, sardonic, unsentimental, unsympathetic and arrogant. But on his second album under the Father John Misty moniker, through all of this, he makes it clear that love is the most important and saving aspect of his life. Why do I love I Love You, Honeybear? Tillman has created a record, basically a love letter to his wife, that contains blossoming instrumentation, memorable one liners, real and genuine insight and, above all, a deep emotional pull. Ultimately though, as he sung on a recent, slightly altered, cover of John Lennon’s ‘God’, all that matters is what’s between him and us, and that’s reality.

2. To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

Choosing my favourite album of this particular year has truly been a test of my will (this coming from someone who can’t answer questions like “What are your ten favourite albums ever?” without a week’s worth of protracted contemplation). This year I listened to two truly wonderful records, one of which, I believe, will go down in history as one of the most significant, vital, relevant, musically innovative, lyrically inventive, conceptually audacious albums ever devised and put to tape. The other is my chosen favourite of 2015. In the end, I stuck to my choice of the word “favourite”, as opposed to “best”, and put the record that I simply enjoyed most at number one. 

That isn’t to say there isn’t enjoyment to be had from Kendrick Lamar’s take on what it is to be a young black person in the year 2015. To Pimp A Butterfly is an opus of a hip hop record, nay of any genre, that flits between West Coast gangsta rap, cool experimental jazz, slam poetry, reconstructed imaginary interviews, 50s doo-wop, soul, funk and electronica all ingeniously wound together by Kendrick’s unique and unpredictable flow and his penchant for a cohesive thematic through line, that takes in subjects such as systemic racism, depression and the evils of fame, without once stepping a foot wrong. To Pimp A Butterfly is yet another incredible piece of art from one of our best artists.

1. Currents – Tame Impala

There is a special corner in my music-adoring heart for Tame Impala. I lived and studied in Perth, Western Australia, the city where Kevin Parker’s dynamic musical project was first established. Weirdly, I never crossed paths with him or the band, either in the street or in my headphones, whilst actually being there. When I returned to Glasgow, I near instantly discovered this treasure trove of brilliant music coming out of Perth, Fremantle, and across that vast, sandy nation. Of course, of all those, it was Tame Impala that hit me hardest the fastest. Sure, I was a sucker for the psychedelic blur of tunefulness that they created. Although, it was Parker’s innate ability to pinpoint the most simple of phrases to sum up the most complicated of feelings that really endeared me to them.

That was 2012. Fast forward three years and now I’m in Wuhan, China, a place dramatically different from either Perth or my Scottish home. Sometimes here, you can find yourself retreating within your own head, whether it be because your grasp of the language isn’t enough to hold a two minute conversation, or because you can’t find food you want to eat, or simply because you miss home. It’s fitting then that, with Currents, Kevin Parker chose to move even deeper within himself to produce this gleaming pop masterwork. Currents details the breakdown of a relationship and the stages we go through to deal with it – sadness, delusion, defiance, acceptance and moving on. Parker approaches each facet of this degradation with sensitivity, emotion and an abundance of melody. What seem like fairly simple phrases and rhyme schemes are only basic because they seem so easy, so familiar, leaving you asking why no one has ever done this before, and the answer being that no one had this clear a vision.

As if that weren’t enough, Parker couples the honing of his skills as a wordsmith with a drastic musical transition, leaving behind the multicoloured psychedelia of his previous recordings for a more soulful, Motown indebted, dance-orientated sound. That doesn’t mean he’s left behind the experimental for the charts, but the melding of both alternative and mainstream musical influences, and the way the combine to create such a fitting backdrop, just goes to highlight the feeling behind the music. His ingenuity even stretches to the point where songs like ‘Let It Happen’ and ‘New Person, Same Mistakes’ seem not only to mirror the narrative story of the end of a relationship but also reflect the way Tame Impala are leaving behind their former sound in the same way.

I really loved Kevin Parker and Tame Impala before Currents, but now I think Parker is one of the most special talents around. Each time I have listened to this album since its release (and trust me, those listens have been numerous), I have been even more impressed and delighted by the CD skip stutter on ‘Let It Happen’, the bass line introducing and carrying ‘The Less I Know the Better’ and the the way the beat drops out and bursts back in near the close of the record. No album has given me more joy this year.

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