Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ed's Top Albums of 2015

This year, I decided to commit myself to seeking out and listening to as much new music as possible, regardless of genre or whether the artists were ones I would normally listen to. As a result of that, I decided to expand my usual countdown from ten entries to twenty, because it turns out that if you're looking for lots of new music to enjoy, you wind up with a lot of stuff to choose from.

This is a decision I regretted almost immediately, because it takes a lot more energy to write twenty entries than it does ten (100% more effort, in fact) and writing about music is something that I find difficult in general, especially since I only do it once a year. However, I decided I was going to do this dumb thing and I have seen it through. Below you will find the twenty records which I enjoyed the most over the course of the last twelve months.

20. Why Make Sense? by Hot Chip

Over their last few albums, Hot Chip have become one of the most contented bands out there. Musically, they've settled into an agreeable groove where they don't push their own boundaries as much as they used to, while their lyrics have become increasingly focused on the joys of being settled in a happy, committed relationship. What's interesting is that they have remained an interesting and exciting band because of, rather than despite, their happy consistency. Every few years they crank out another album of sweet, squelchy dance, suffused with the joy of being happy and stable, both as individuals and as a band. That probably means that they won't hit the highs of "Over and Over" again any time soon, but if they are stuck in a rut, at least it's an enjoyable one.

19. Return to the Moon by EL VY

As much as I love The National, they haven't exactly been doing much to surprise us lately. That's one of the many reasons why it was such a delight to hear Matt Berninger's soulful baritone being used in a slightly different context on this, the first album to result from his collaboration with Brent Knopf of Menomena. Though the album still has the limited vocal range and inscrutable lyrics that typify Berninger's day job, Return to the Moon's compositions are not nearly as lush or layered, which pushes his voice to the fore, while allowing him to play with sparser instrumentation. The end result is at once pleasantly familiar and starkly different.

18. Poison Season by Destroyer

"Dream Lover" may be the best Springsteen song that Springsteen never wrote. That's not the only reason why this album cracked my top twenty - there's plenty to love in Destroyer's ability to shift from rollicking anthemic rock to delicate, string-heavy somber balladry - but it's the primary one.

17. GO:OD AM by Mac Miller

There's something immensely appealing about the way that Mac Miller turns the quest for sobriety into such an enjoyable album. Even as he tackles depression and the emptiness that comes with success, he does so with a relaxed attitude that makes the album feel like it should be the soundtrack to a chill party, even though the lyrics are, more often than not, about trying to recover from a life that featured a few too many parties. It's not a cautionary album by any means, but it's weariness does come from authentic experience, and it's a tribute to Miller's skill that he delivers his pain with such panache.

16. Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes

Other than Brittany Howard's undeniably great voice, I never really saw the appeal of Alabama Shakes when they put out their first record. The music was fine - and again, Howard's voice is out of this world - but it never grabbed me. The same could not be said about their followup, which sunk its teeth into me instantly with the spectral tones of the title track and has yet to let go. It helps that they broadened their palette a little from the rock and soul of the first album to encompass funk and jazz, genres that allowed a bit more variety both in the general feel of the album, and in Howard's voice, which gets the chance to roam and explore in ways that were not afforded by the more narrow focus of their debut.

15. E·MO·TION by Carly Rae Jepsen

Carly Rae Jepsen may have dominated the airwaves in 2012 with the inescapable "Call Me Maybe", but her attempt to recapture the zeitgeist with "I Really Like You" stalled, despite an assist from Tom Hanks in the completely charming video. As fun as that song is, it's one of the weaker tracks on E·MO·TION, a sleek electro-pop album that owes a heavy debt to '80s pop - it opens with a sax solo, after all - and is delivered with an emotional directness that counters the swooning synthpop nicely.

14. Beat the Champ by The Mountain Goats 

The Mountain Goats' latest, a typically fiery and loquacious collection inspired by frontman John Darnielle's interest in pro-wrestling, would warrant inclusion on this list for "The Legend of Chavo Guerroro" alone. A spiky story song about a real-life wrestler from Darnielle's youth, the song manages to be one of the band's most triumphant and uplifting, while retaining some of their darker recurring themes. Specifically, the role Chavo Guerroro served for Darnielle during his childhood, which is contrasted against his relationship with his stepfather ("He was my hero back when I was a kid/You let me down but Chavo never once did"). If the rest of the album doesn't quite achieve that level of songwriting and thematic perfection, it gets close on multiple occasions as each sketches out life and love on the canvas, using the milieu of wrestling to explore hope, despair, and the desire for escape, all set to whirlwind guitar and Darnielle's yearning vocals.

13. In Colour by Jamie xx

Despite being somewhat agnostic towards The xx, I've been looking forward to a Jamie xx solo album ever since he remixed Gil-Scott Heron's last album, I'm New Here, and created the woozy, electronica-infused We're New Here. His solo debut lacks the unifying voice that Heron brought to their collaboration, instead offering a kaleidoscopic journey through a slew of different sub-genres of dance, from rave and techno to ambient and dancehall. The resulting record feels less like a statement of intent than a sample platter from a tremendous talent who hasn't quite settled on a style or tone yet. Annoyingly, he proves to be pretty great at all of them.

12. The Most Lamentable Tragedy by Titus Andronicus

Punk rock by its very nature doesn't lend itself to excess: the whole point is to get in and get out as quickly and loudly as possible. But for their fourth album, Titus Andronicus went big with a concept album about a man meeting his doppelgänger, which doubles up as an exploration of manic depression. Despite the length and number of tracks, the narrative and the band's sheer energy keeps things engaging and thrilling as the album moves through its various movements. It's the musical equivalent of watching Usain Bolt run a marathon, but refusing to slow down or get tired.

11. Summertime '06 by Vince Staples

It takes a certain level of confidence to release a double-album - after all, nothing is more likely to elicit accusations of self-indulgence that offering up a huge volume of music in one go. It takes a whole lot more confidence to make that double-album your debut, but Vince Staples has the goods to back it up. It helps that it's such a thematically cohesive work, an exploration of Staples' adolescence and a period of death and despair in the summer of 2006. The mixture of excitement and panic that runs throughout the whole album, a sense of discovering new things about yourself yet feeling deeply conflicted about them, creates a tension which plays out in the contrast between the music and the lyrics. Staples' flow is always assured and steady, but the music is choppy and discordant, suggesting an outward display of strength than hides deep wells of uncertainty. Being a teenager, basically.

10. Perpetual Motion People by Ezra Furman

Disaffection and nihilism have never been as infectious as they are in Ezra Furman's hands. Veering between Violent Femmes-esque anthems whose bounciness is matched only by their verbosity, country ballads, and the odd doo-wop pastiche, Furman takes the despair of living in a society that means nothing to you, the quest for meaning, and income inequality, and transforms them into bursts of pop perfection that are impossible to ignore. An endlessly fun exploration of being young, angry, and facing an uncertain future.

9. At. Long. Last. A.$.A.P. by A.$.A.P. Rocky

In a strong year for introspective and atmospheric rap, A.$.A.P. Rocky's latest stood out for his willingness to go deeper and darker than most. Unafraid of being sluggish or atonal, At. Long. Last. A.$.A.P. treads familiar territory (the pressures of success, love, excess) but tackles them with a clear-eyed absence of sentimentality. It's a rueful, reflective hangover of a record that deploys its hooks sparingly yet effectively, allowing A.$.A.P. Rocky's self-lacerating lyrics to set the pace and tone.

8. Junun by Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood and the Rajasthan Express

I was drawn to this primarily because of the Paul Thomas Anderson documentary of the same name, which tracks the recording of the album. Once that initial curiosity was piqued, the record has remained in pretty steady rotation because, separated from the documentary, it remains a hugely enjoyable and exciting experience. A great fusion of different sounds and sensibilities, Junun is alive with the possibilities represented by its own creation; the idea that people from vastly differently cultural and musical backgrounds can come together and produce something that bears the stamp of all of them, which still feels unique to their specific collaboration.

7. Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens

As enjoyably odd as Sufjan Stevens' grandiose The BQE and The Age of Adz were, it was wonderful to hear him return to a more modest, less alienating sound with Carrie & Lowell, his first pure folk album since 2004's Seven Swans, and possibly one of the saddest albums ever recorded. Inspired by the death of his mother - the titular Carrie; Lowell refers to his stepfather - it's a quiet, intimate and reflective album that finds Stevens exploring the various permutations of his grief with great delicacy. A heart-wrenching and sombre work which reestablishes Stevens as one of the best songwriters of his generation.

6. Art Angels by Grimes

Visions would be a tough act for any artist to follow, but Grimes isn't just any old artist. The Canadian virtuoso returned with a more melodic but no less provocative record that seemed to confirm her as the next Bjork: someone who can combine pop with innovative and unusual instrumentation, and a style that refuses to be easily quantified.

5. Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit by Courtney Barnett

Finally, the wordy Australian fuzz-rock saviour that the world has been crying out for! A witty debut shot through with scuzzy guitars and funny character sketches, not to mention killer choruses, Barnett's songs feel both elaborate and tossed off. It's clear that the lyrics have been laboured over and considered for maximum impact, yet the delivery is so casual that it feels like she invented the whole record at the very moment that the microphones were turned on. That's a very hard balance to get right, and she so completely masters it that the album can't help but be a complete delight.

4. Hamilton Original Cast Recording by the cast of Hamilton

In such a chaotic and fragmented year as 2015, one of the few recurring themes was the way in which things which should never succeed somehow managed to do so beyond any logical reason (look no further than Donald Trump's current polling numbers for proof of that). The success of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, may be the apotheosis of that trend. Not only is it a musical based on a hefty historical biopic of one of America's Founding Fathers, it's a hip-hop musical based on a hefty historical biopic of one of America's Founding Fathers. That combination is so inherently corny and cringe-worthy that it should not work. Yet it does. Miranda's mixing of classic rap and musical theatre - it's rare that you'll find a Broadway show which references both Pirates of Penzance and "Juicy" by Notorious B.I.G. - transforms Hamilton's life into a bold and emotional story of an immigrant rising to tremendous success, and an achingly realised tragedy that does more to humanise Aaron Burr - probably the most vilified figure in American history - in one song ("Wait For It") than Gore Vidal managed in a whole book. Aside from its value as an entertaining account of a fascinating historical figure, it also has beautiful, heartrending songs about sacrifice ("Satisfied"), parenthood ("Dear Theodosia") and the loss of a child ("It's Quiet Uptown") which will hopefully become standards in the years to come. It's a tribute to the material that every song works on its own, but if I ever listen to one song in isolation, I have go back to the start and listen to the whole thing again.

3. Every Open Eye by CHVRCHES

Having made one nearly flawless album with The Bones of What You Believe, Scottish electronic group CHVRCHES blew up the very notion of a sophomore slump by delivering another one like it was nothing. Once again driven primarily by swirling synths and Lauren Mayberry's soaring vocals, Every Open Eye is every bit as gorgeous and enveloping of the first album, but with the added sheen of experience that comes from playing all over the world. Yet for all their skill, they have yet to lose the emotional openness that made their debut such a thrill in the first place. The music may have gotten a little sleeker, but their hearts are very much still on their sleeves, and the heightened contrast between the two halves of the band make Every Open Eye every bit as compelling as its predecessor.

2. To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar has been one of the most exciting rappers of recent years, but on To Pimp a Butterfly he staked his claim to being one of the more ambitious, too. Mixing his unique flow with a strong jazz influence, Lamar created a bold and complex suite of songs which feed into each other as he raps about government oppression of African-Americans ("Wesley's Theory"), self-loathing ("u") and the corrupting power of money ("How Much A Dollar Cost"). It's a lyrical and musical history of black America that shows tremendous confidence on the part of Lamar, who leaves off the single version of "i" in favour of a much more chaotic live version, and intersperses the record with extracts of a poem, ultimately revealing that he is reading it to Tupac Shakur, who then has a conversation with Kendrick in the form of an old radio interview. Both are bold choices that could have backfired, but are carried off through a mixture of bravado and expert control of the album's narrative, ensuring that the final "conversation" is an emotional and strange climax to a sweeping epic of an album.

1. No Cities To Love by Sleater-Kinney
The story of Sleater-Kinney's return after a nearly decade-long hiatus may be one of the least dramatic in history. Essentially, it boils down to Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein sitting on a couch, turning to each other, and saying "Should we be a band again?" The ease with which it all came together probably isn't going to provide much fodder for the inevitable film about their lives, but it runs throughout the resulting record, their first since 2005. No Cities To Love feels like the album they would have made had they never gone away. Not that it's the album they would have made immediately after The Woods, but it's the album they would have made if they had kept writing and recording together and had grown as a band during that time. It has the same energy and power that their earlier records did, but the songs have a different perspective to them. They are the work of women who have realised that their music might not be able to change the world, but they have to keep making it anyway. When Tucker and Brownstein sing on "Bury Our Friends" 'We're wild and weary but we won't give in' there's a defiance and a truth to it. There's passion in the overlapping guitars and knowledge in the vocals, and the combination is spine-tingling.