The Top Albums of 2015
by Tastemakers Staff, published December 25th 2015
10. Grimes - Art Angels
To say that Art Angels was eagerly awaited would be an understatement. It had been almost four years since Boucher’s breakthrough album Visions. In the meantime, she nearly had a complete mental and physical breakdown while touring, started making a concerted effort to “eat every day, and eat enough food, and sleep at night,” considered ending solo work after experiencing sexism in the music industry, released the divisive (read “terrible”) single “Go,” and completely scrapped her progress on a new album. Prospects looked dim, but then she released “REALiTi” as a demo, which received critical acclaim and would later make it onto Art Angels in re-recorded form.
Boucher has pointed out that Art Angels is the first album she has recorded knowing that people would listen to it, and it shows. The album has a cohesion that the much-lauded Visions lacked. Every track is masterfully composed and inventive, while remaining accessible enough for a wide audience.
Art Angels represents Boucher’s effort to reclaim sole control of the Grimes project. She had to fight to ensure that outside producers would not be brought on and that she would not be forced to include poppy songs that she did not actually like. Boucher makes her intentions clear from the outset with “California,” which she has called a “hate track for Pitchfork.” In it she bemoans the way she is fetishized and misrepresented in the media, but she disguises this rebellion in a pop track complete with a hook that’s downright catchy. With Art Angels Boucher has asserted her independence, and she has set the stage for a fruitful career to come.
-Jonas Polin (Undeclared)
9. Hiatus Kaiyote - Choose Your Weapon
Contemporary, earthy, cinematic, aquatic, groovy; pick one or a few, it doesn’t really matter, Hiatus Kaiyote have already got it on lock. On their sophomore album Choose Your Weapon, the Australian quartet have compiled one of the most comprehensive albums I’ve heard this year (or ever).
Hiatus Kaiyote rode their way into 2015 with the recognition and respect garnered by their 2013 Grammy nomination for the track “Nakamarra” off their first studio album Tawk Tamohawk. Despite Tawk Tamohawk’s near perfection, the band was still relatively obscure at the time of the release (I seriously struggled to find a DL link).
Choose Your Weapon is more mature than their previous efforts, with a lot more experimentation both vocally and instrumentally (peep the IG for a round up of some instruments used in the making of this album). That’s not to say that the album lacks accessibility; by all means it’s quite the opposite, that’s exactly what makes it palatable to the average listener or anyone who’s “not that into jazz.” Usually when the term “experimentation” is thrown around, it is followed by an appreciation for the raw and abstract. In this case, while that still may hold true, the strings are tied quite carefully, led by Nai Palm’s loveable/cryable/holy-shit-you’re-a-gawdess vocals, Baduizim levels of charm and incredible percussion. At 16 tracks, the sophomore album is a journey, down many different roads, with significantly different views, but all beautiful nonetheless. It’s #nofilter worthy at the very least. Ignore the metaphor, just stop spending more waking hours virgin to the soul delivered on Choose Your Weapon.
-Youssef El-Sheikh (Political Science/Economics)
8. Future - DS2
A year ago, Future was a seen as a joke. His full-length record Honest was critically disfavored for it’s lyrical disorientation and all-over-the-place sounds. Leading the production was Billboard Hot 100 mogul Mike WiLL MADE-IT who catered to Future’s pop persona at the time. Since then, Future has released three game-changing mixtapes, DS2, plus a more recent joint mixtape with 6-God Drake, and become one of the most critically acclaimed rap artists of 2015. To call him today’s “hardest-working guy in rap” still sounds like an understatement.
Aside from delivering seasonal heavy-hitting releases, Future’s been working through some truly fucked up emotions since Honest. DS2 is confessional trap doused in a glossy purple that details his guttural world since his breakup with Ciara and the imprisonment of his closest friend and producer DJ Esco. The poppy love songs from his older records are replaced with minor-key trap-rap where nothing but the next high is a priority. Mike WiLL MADE-IT is nowhere to be found as Future instead utilizes Atlanta’s best producers Metro Boomin, Southside and Zaytoven to further him into hedonism fueled by codeine and cocaine. DS2 begins with the sound of lean pouring into a styrofoam cup that hauntingly echoes throughout, in lines where Future describes starting his life anew by being “baptized inside purple Actavis” and even toasts to A$AP Yams who died from the codeine drink at 26. He’s drowning in the drugs and demons that fame has brought him, chanting “they tried to make a pop star and they made a monster” like a cry for help.
He reassures himself by repeating “I’m feelin way better” into submission on the chorus of standout “Slave Master.” DS2 is ceaseless nihilism best exhibited in songs like “Slave Master” and bonus track “Kno the Meaning,” where occasional sirens blast through an elegant piano beat, causing the void of stardom to feel especially vacant. Future finds himself facing the same celebrity-related issues as Kendrick Lamar in this year’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but instead sorts it out through heavy, devoid trap rap and rampant drug usage. The raw potency lies in the indifferently spoken lines like “I just took a piss and I seen codeine coming out,” or “That Easter pink I tried to give it up, I can’t give it up”: he’s slowly killing himself and he knows it.
-Anu Gulati (Computer Science/Math)
7. Hop Along - Painted Shut
Hop Along’s sophomore album, Painted Shut, is one of those albums that hits home on the first listen. A follow up to the Philadelphia rockers’ 2012 debut, Get Disowned, Painted Shut is a collection of intricate narratives of ordinary life. Listening to the album for the first time is like revisiting a trove of childhood memorabilia with the versed eyes of maturity.
By weaving confessional stories, front-woman Frances Quinlan re-animates the deep mediocrity that accompanies adolescent disenchantment. Quinlan narrates with a heavy heart and raw vocals. Her gritty falsetto and unpolished howls are expert, and her seamless transitions between the two create unpredictable melodies that sort of, well, “hop along.” Quinlan’s strong vocals are reminiscent of Janis Joplin and Alanis Morissette, and are especially fantastic on acoustic highlight “Happy to See Me,” making it arguably the most emotionally compelling song on the album. Other highlights include “Horseshoe Crabs,” “Waitress” and “Well-Dressed.”
Quinlan’s voice is met with playfully versatile guitars and crashing percussion. The band explores rhythm and melody through various stop and starts, and multiple layers of guitar and vocal melodies. Deeming their genre as indie-rock doesn’t do the Hop Along justice. Their sound is rigid—inspired by punk and folk, with Quinlan’s wailing vocals to top it all off. Her voice is most potent at the end of “Happy to See Me” repeating, “We all will remember things the same,” into oblivion.
-Raquel Massoud (Journalism)
6. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit
What do palmistry, origami, lattes and the suburban dream have in common? You’ll have to ask the notoriously eccentric lyricist, Courtney Barnett, who covers all four topics on her debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Reflective of its title, the album is wordy, wry, and ironically honest. Showing off Barnett’s undeniable knack for words, Sometimes I Sit takes listeners for a wacky ride on her train-of-thought, expressing the amusingly frank inner monologue of a twenty-something-year-old woman and the comically average events that fulfill her life. Staying consistent with her previous double-EP release, A Sea of Split Peas, Barnett continues to please with her mundanely poetic lyrics and dry delivery. Her lyrics are unforgettable: “Give me all your money and I’ll make some origami, honey / I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny,” from the chorus of “Pedestrian at Best,” are a pair of lines that epitomize Barnett’s lyrical wit. She strikes the perfect balance between seriousness and playfulness, exploring universal troubles like lost love and existential crisis through humorous and peculiar anecdotes about her life – whether to cut the grass parallels a question of self-worth, a road kill possum leads to thoughts of mortality. Sonically, Barnett’s music isn’t extraordinary – her voice is kind of flat and her slide guitar is irksome – but these imperfections work in her favor; they allow her lyrics, the strongest aspect of her album, to be the focal point. Her music is an ode to average people everywhere, her lyrics relatable to anyone who has ever felt used, useless, or introspective. Charmed by her honesty and her delightful Aussie accent, we gladly appoint Sometimes I Sit among the year’s best albums.
-Emily Arntsen (English)
5. The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die - Harmlessness
In addition to having one of the best band names ever, The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die have given listeners a new sound with the release of their latest album Harmlessness, which abandons the rougher emo edges of their 2013 LP Wherever, If Ever , and replaces them with more gentle indie rock while still retaining the familiar depth of emotion in emo and emo-revival music. The eight-piece have really cleaned up their chaotic sound so that listeners can hear each track’s instrumentation. No string pluck or violin stroke goes unnoticed here.
Harmlessness can be appreciated as background music or as the soundtrack to a late, sleepless night. The album builds and crashes in just the right places without being overbearing, and covers a broad spectrum of familiar issues of being alive, dealing with difficult relationships, finding a place, handling depression and questioning the morality and justification (if there is any) in taking a life.
This is the kind of album that can stand by itself, and doesn’t really need any context or support. Harmlessness is written for the present and offers listeners as much or as little solace as needed. Without losing the energy and emotion that made them so appealing in the first place, The World Is A Beautiful Place really hit it out of the park with this one.
-Taylor Piepenbrink (Music Industry)
4. Tame Impala - Currents
You need to listen to the new Tame Impala album with both headphones in. Otherwise, you will not get the full effect. Each song is a deeply layered swirl of mysticism. What Impala’s foreman Kevin Parker has done with the newest album is his most polished effort. If the first two studio albums where solitary experimentations delving deep into the science of feeling, then Currents is a published study meant for the scientific community. This is Parker’s foray into extroversion and that theme is seen from the top down on Currents. The album art itself represents the way liquid or gas shapes around an object moving through it, a person moving through the aether of the world. From the first song and lead single, “Let it Happen,” Parker grapples with his past reclusion and allows himself to open up. Clocking in at nearly 8 minutes the track is a mixture of underlying groove, overarching synths, and Parker’s trademarked reverberating vocals culminating into Impala’s most palpable dance track and the proverbial champagne bottle smashing across the hull of Currents as it embarks.
At points in the album, interludes like track two, “Nangs,” and “Gossip” are pulsating synths and bass that intrude your ears and massage the brain. “Yes I’m Changing” is a soft proclamation of Parker’s metamorphosis and a song ripe for a David Lynch soundtrack. The essence of the album is a distancing from the layers of sound blanketing lyrics that Tame Impala employed in the first two albums. This album is crisp. Currents is ostensibly a pop album, but one that’s been dipped in liquid rainbow fluorescence. “The Less I Know The Better” is an example of beautiful melody on vocals over 70’s Stones-influenced guitar pacing. “Past Life” begins with Parker’s screwed up Australian accent narrating matter-of-factly over dreamy synths. Then possibly some Yeezus influenced distortion rips the song in two before the floating chorus comes in to provide added instrumental elements. “’Cause I’m A Man” is just some baby making music. Get yourself some neon satin sheets before listening. Throughout Currents but especially on “Love/Paranoia,” hip-hop drum elements are present and carry the song. The final track “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” possesses some of the best mixing on the album and has an optimistic message if you are a Tame Impala fan. What Kevin Parker has done here by manning the ship from mixing, editing, producing and writing is a complete, multi-faceted masterwork, and we can look forward to an ever changing, and ever-enhancing artist.
-Matt Sherman (Business)
3. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
Arriving five years on from his 75-minute electro-acoustic mindbender The Age of Adz, Carrie & Lowell finds Sufjan Stevens going back to his roots – way back. Inspired by the death of a mother he long struggled to know, Carrie & Lowell digs into Stevens’ childhood memories – abandonment, confusion, sadness and brief bright-white flashes of joy – sets them against scenes from a dark and lonely period of his life in the modern day, and reckons with the whole burden. Stevens has always had an ear for pathos and the details of character in his songwriting, and when he turns that lens on himself at album length, in such unflinching fashion, the results are stunning.
Carrie & Lowell is heartbreaking in ways big and small. “We’re all gonna die,” goes the gently sung chorus of “Fourth of July,” chanted over and over, mantra-like and fragile. “Do I care if I survive this?” Stevens ponders aloud amid a litany of suicidal thoughts on “The Only Thing.” But while mortality is the catalyst for much of the record’s soul searching, Stevens is ultimately writing most directly about the nature of love, be it familial, romantic or spiritual. He addresses his mother directly on more than one occasion, begging in vain for a reason why she couldn’t love him. “John My Beloved” ties Christian imagery into an awkward date, concluding with a plea for the protection of Christ’s love. “All of Me Wants All of You” alludes to a limping relationship long since devoid of affection or care. “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” offers the year’s most quietly shattering couplet – “Like a champion, get drunk to get laid / I take one more hit when you depart.”
These 11 songs explore heavy and deeply personal subject matter with honesty and grace, exorcising an intangible pain in the form of something beautiful. Stevens’ compositions hearken back to the sparest moments of Seven Swans, largely acoustic, engineered as though he’s playing seated across from you, for you alone to hear. Even when the words are not easy to bear, there is undeniable beauty in their presentation. And that’s ultimately the nature of Carrie & Lowell, a record about the persistence of love in all its forms and the acknowledgement of the unrequited; the beauty and the pain that must always exist side by side.
-Ben Stas (Journalism/English)
2. Father John Misty - I Love You Honeybear
The story Josh Tillman tells on I Love You, Honeybear, his second and best album as Father John Misty, is one of personal transformation through romantic love- not on the face of it the most unique subject for a pop record. Yet Tillman chronicles the epiphanies and stumbling blocks culminating in his marriage to Emma Elizabeth Tillman with unmatched intelligence, humor and pathos, while making listeners wince through their laugher with the clarity and bite of his insights on life in the age of digital narcissism and ironically unironic irony. The attention to detail throughout is stunning, with Tillman employing a crack team of musicians, complete with strings and horns, to make every song as gorgeous and ornate as possible. The luxurious musical backdrop, enhanced by Tillman and Jonathan Wilson’s high-fi production, gives the album a modern version of the ‘70s Laurel Canyon sheen so favored by the likes of Jackson Browne, which only heightens the tension when Tillman uses his acid wit to cut through everything hypocritical and tiresome about the modern world, never more mercilessly than when he recognizes these flaws within himself. Tillman’s supremely quotable lyrics act as a portrait of the artist as a not-that-young cynic, capturing everything from the irritation and self-loathing of “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment” and “The Ideal Husband” to the bemused anhedonia of “Bored in the USA” and the ecstatic conjugal bliss of “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)” and “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me.” I Love You, Honeybear’s greatest accomplishment, however, is the way it reassures misanthropes everywhere that one can maintain even the bleakest worldview while still keeping room in their hearts for true love. This is the sound of modern romance, and it’s far greater than we could have ever dared to hope for.
-Terence Cawley (Biology)
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
The big hip-hop followup is an exercise in hit or miss. It also determines a rapper’s staying power, deciding whether they become the next Kanye or fade away into obscurity. To Pimp a Butterfly accomplished the near-impossible and actually overshadowed its predecessor in terms of influence, getting props from everyone from Pitchfork to President Obama. And rather than just expanding on good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick took things in a completely new direction, creating a standalone masterpiece that holds fast to its roots of jazz and funk in an era when popular rap has been racing in the opposite direction. What really makes Butterfly special, however, is Kendrick’s ability to seem poignantly human while solidifying his pinnacle at the top of the rap game. No matter what lyrical heights he ascends to, you can still hear that kid from Compton, and that is why Kendrick dominates.
-Tim DiFazio (English)