After posting my favorite songs of 2015 last week, I’m now ready to unveil my 10 favorite albums from this unbelievably great year in new music. For your reference, here are my favorite albums lists from 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.
Before I get to the long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from each.
20. Best Coast – California Nights (“So Unaware”)
19. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love (“Multi-Love”)
18. Destroyer – Poison Season (“Times Square”)
17. Wilco – Star Wars (“Taste the Ceiling”)
16. Viet Cong – Viet Cong (“Continental Shelf”)
15. Grimes – Art Angels (“Realiti”)
14. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp (“Air”)
13. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color (“Future People”)
12. Passion Pit – Kindred (“All I Want”)
11. Toro y Moi – What For? (“Buffalo”)
Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2015.
The first new music in over three years from Beach House, the Baltimore-based dream pop duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, appeared in July, with the release of “Sparks” and the announcement of their fifth album Depression Cherry. “Sparks” is unlike anything in Beach House’s catalogue, drawing clear and direct influence from My Bloody Valentine instead of simply building on their own past. If I didn’t know this was a Beach House song, the rich guitar layers and Legrand’s Bilinda Butcher-like vocals would convince me it was an outtake from m b v. I also wondered if Legrand and Scally were going for a more shoegaze-inspired sound on Depression Cherry, or just generally moving in a different direction. Neither turned out to be the case. Instead, Depression Cherry is another excellent Beach House album, continuing their mastery of the ethereal and wondrous. It may not equal either of its two predecessors, Teen Dream and Bloom, but it stands on its own thanks to complete ownership of a unique and warm sound. These songs include building opener “Levitation,” gorgeous emotional center “Space Song”, arpeggio-filled “PPP”, solemn marcher “Wildflower” and heavenly, blissful closer “Days of Candy.” Especially after releasing a second, more-sparse LP Thank Your Lucky Stars in 2015, Beach House should be leaders in the clubhouse to provide the soundtrack for David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” reboot in 2017. Nobody is creating better spacey, big-sounding and dreamy pop music right now than Beach House.
Despite being undeniably one of the marquee American indie rock bands of the last decade, it had been a while since we’d heard the best of Deerhunter. After releasing the transcendent Halcyon Digest in 2010, which contained some of the best songs ever from leaders Bradford Cox and Lockett Pundt, 2013’s Monomania was all glam and garage rock and really did nothing for me. After Cox was seriously injured in an accident last year, I began to wonder if Deerhunter’s best days were over. I’m glad I was wrong, as this year’s surprise release of Fading Frontier is a return to form, a back-to-the-basics record from a band that knows both when to rock out and when to get a little weird. I was immediately struck by the ease, melody and calmness of “Breaker”, a Tom Petty-esque jam awash in 12-string Rickenbackers and absolutely my favorite Deerhunter song since “Desire Lines.” It’s also the rare Deerhunter song with a two-part harmony by Cox and Pundt. Fading Frontier generally sounds like a band settling into a great groove with where they are. Other highlights for me include the trippy, Real Estate-vibe of opener “All the Same”, the crunchy, grimy rock sound of “Snakeskin,” and the fun, vocally-mesmerizing “Living My Life.” Deerhunter can be a great band when they sound focused and clear, so it’s a relief Cox is healthy and Deerhunter is back doing what they do best.
All it took to put a heretofore-unknown Vancouver-born singer-songwriter on the map was a five-word January tweet from Adele. “This is fantastic,” the UK songstress wrote, “click away,” followed by the video for Tobias Jesso Jr.’s breakout single, “How Could You Babe”. From there, 2015 became the Year of Jesso, anchored by his March debut album, Goon. Jesso populated his first release with plaintive piano ditties recalling ‘70s singer-songwriters such as Randy Newman, Emitt Rhodes and Harry Nilsson (apparently he’d never listened any of them before writing Goon), striking a nerve that hasn’t been touched in popular music in many years. With Jesso’s vocal range and superior piano skills on display (even though he’s only played for THREE YEARS!), songs like the longing ballad “Without You,” the run-down reality of “Hollywood,” the McCartney-esque sway of “Just a Dream” and the beautiful sentiment of “Leaving LA” reach the ears with incredible ease. He manages to include a couple wonderfully-crafted, finger-picked guitar tunes here as well: “The Wait” carries a folksy innocence while closer “Tell the Truth” hits more of an end-of-relationship note. Working alongside producers like Ariel Rechtshaid, JR White and Patrick Carney, Jesso has the songwriting chops of someone years his senior while maintaining a youthful, and sometimes playful, edge to what’s on Goon. Adele had it right: Jesso is fantastic, and after her collaboration with him on her new album got him even more notoriety, his potential for continued greatness has no ceiling.
My introduction to Madeon, the stage name of 21-year-old French dance/pop producer Hugo Pierre Leclercq, came early in the form of a punch with a fistful of sugar. The first song to appear in 2015 from his debut album, Adventure, was “Pay No Mind”, a collaboration with Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos with Two Door Cinema Club’s Sam Halliday. From the very first second, “Pay No Mind” is a blast, with its looping guitar licks, Angelakos’ typically great vocals and a general sense of euphoric fun. It remained my favorite song of the year from the first time I heard it to today. But luckily for Leclercq, “Pay No Mind” is only one of several great tunes on Adventure, which is another instance of a new artist sounding beyond their years on their first album. There’s the house-ish, mostly instrumental and equally as fun early track “OK”, the power pop of “La Lune” with Bastille’s Dan Smith, the imperial, methodical stomp of “Imperium” (which sounds like it could have been in a “Matrix” movie), the driving Mark Foster collaboration of “Nonsense” and the sensual R&B beats of “Innocence” among the standouts. Leclercq’s production is so clean, so clear, so precise and so bright, it’s just unreal. Listen to closing statement “Home”, a beautiful and dramatic send-off about the struggles of his creative process, complete with his own terrific vocal performance, and be spellbound that this kid is only getting wiser, and better.
I loved Chvrches’ debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, and I love their follow-up, Every Open Eye, just as much. The Scottish trio truly owns their dance-inspired synthpop corner and now sport an even more impressive catalogue. Every Open Eye doesn’t really find Chvrches treading on new territory beyond to their debut. It’s just that Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty have something extremely special; a style that came along at a perfect time given what resonates today. Like their debut, Every Open Eye opens with a murderer’s row of knockout pop songs, with its first five songs comprising its core of excellence. “Never Ending Circles” opens the proceedings with stomping bombast while lead single “Leave a Trace” represents the best of Chvrches’ dramatic power-pop intensity. The pace gets more frenetic with “Keep You On My Side” and keeps up on the cheery “Make Them Gold.” Then, there’s “Clearest Blue”, the best Chvrches song to date, a builder behind Mayberry’s dramatic vocals that erupts two minutes in with an endorphin rush of synths and beats. Later tunes like “Empty Threat” and “Playing Dead” don’t reach quite as high, but maintain the polish of this sophomore effort. The only complaint: reminiscent of my biggest gripe with Bones, the weakest moment here is Doherty’s drab vocal performance on “High Enough to Carry You Over.” I appreciate the effort at democracy, but Chvrches belongs to Mayberry, her voice and her words. The faster Chvrches learns that, they’ll fly even higher.
The music world held its breath in 2014 awaiting new music from Kendrick Lamar, the next in a long line of hip hop artists with more on their minds than cash, cars and saying degrading things about women. Kendrick is so talented, so thoughtful, so expressive and so creative; a perfect combination to make him a standout in his generation. The energetic, frantic, “That Lady”-charged single “i” provided a small glimpse, but the bigger picture was even better when To Pimp a Butterfly was announced in February and surprisingly dropped two weeks later. It’s an outstanding follow-up to Kendrick’s breakthrough, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, one that puts all of his many talents and styles in one place for all to see. This is a capital A album, one that doesn’t lend itself easily to the single-friendly listening culture of today. Considering that good kid transformed Kendrick into a household name thanks to bangers like “Backseat Freestyle” and “Swimming Pools (Drank),” I give him tons of credit for not making an album full of copycats. Besides “i,” only the bouncy, funky “King Kunta” and the angry, racially-charged “The Blacker the Berry” struck me as possible heavy-rotation singles. Elsewhere, To Pimp a Butterfly must be appreciated as a whole, a portrait of an artist as a young man, determining where he fits and what he needs to say to make sense of it. Many of the songs flow smoothly, inspired more by R&B than Kendrick’s West Coast rap lineage, with songs like “Institutionalized,” “Momma,” “These Walls” and “Complexion.” In addition, Kendrick repeats lines from a poem about his mortality throughout the album, giving To Pimp a Butterfly a sense of humanity, which often goes missing from major hip hop releases.
Over the last year or so, Adam Granofsky earned some mainstream fame after the War on Drugs’ outstanding Lost in the Dream gained notoriety (it was also my favorite album of 2014). In 2015, it was Granofsky’s former bandmate and fellow long-haired, guitar-wielding badass Kurt Vile who got a similar opportunity. b’lieve i’m goin down, Vile’s sixth solo album, presents an eclectic mix of different styles coalescing into a much more laid-back and folksy sound than what Granofsky makes. However, these guys have at least one thing in common besides their lengthy follicles: they write, record and release amazing rock songs, and this is my favorite album of Vile’s to date. There’s electric rock here on the kickass opener “Pretty Pimpin” and the waste-case recollections of “Dust Bunnies.” There’s gorgeous, finger-picked acoustic on so many of these songs, including “That’s Life tho (almost hate to say),” “Stand Inside,” “Kidding Around” and “All in a Daze Work,” showing off the range of his pure talent. He even dabbles with the banjo on “I’m an Outlaw.” The wonderful mix of b’lieve i’m goin down doesn’t end there, with the shifty piano stop-time rock of “Lost my Head there” utilizing some interesting recording techniques and drumming signatures from Kyle Spence. Vile covers a lot of ground sonically but also leaves lots of room for his great, detached, almost spoken-word vocal style. On the quiet, drum machine-backed closer “Wild Imagination.” Vile sings of seeing things in pictures of someone from his past that may not really be there. He later says he’s feeling too many feelings all at once, but keeps imploring himself, softly, to “give it some time, give it some time.” It’s a nice note to end on for Vile, who really spreads his wings on b’lieve i’m goin down.
Miguel Jontel Pimental, the 30-year-old L.A. born-and-bred, style-melding singer whose popularity rose steadily before 2015, is known to the world by just his first name. But there’s a lot more to this man than that. His fame exploded this year thanks to Wildheart, with his brand of electrified and sexified R&B, drawing from the best of the best: Marvin Gaye, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, James Brown–they’re all here in some way. Yet Miguel manages to create something funky, soulful and downright amazing of his own. The focus of Wildheart is pretty transparent: these are songs about fucking. Sometimes Miguel beats you over the head with it (I mean, listen to “the valley”!) but more often, he takes a delicate approach, one much more about shared joy than machismo. On the gorgeous, building “Coffee”, Miguel wants more than just evenings of fun without feeling, singing “I don’t want to wake you / I just want to watch you sleep” as he brews a pot. Wildheart goes beyond the bedroom too, with the heartfelt “what’s normal anyway” exploring Miguel’s painful experiences as a child of mixed race, and “leaves,” anchored by its “1979” riff (for which Miguel gave Billy Corgan a songwriting credit), uses the changing of seasons as a metaphor for a breakup he never saw coming. Midway through we meet “waves”, an absolute banger, hotter than a bazillion blazing suns, seemingly about actually catching waves but more about grabbing life by the balls. That’s all before the wildly-catchy final 1:15 of the song, with that crazy, layered harmony vocal track atop Miguel’s hot beats. The other real standout after “waves” is epic closer “face the sun”, with Lenny Kravitz dropping a terrific guest guitar performance. Again not capitulating to his image as a player, Miguel sings of his love not needing to worry about someone new, cooing over and over “I belong with you!” while Kravitz goes nuts on guitar. It’s a perfect cap to a great album. If Miguel continues to follow the blueprint of Wildheart, there’s no telling how much his star will rise.
In the decade between Sleater-Kinney albums, the post-punk trio’s stature grew to nearly-mythic proportions, especially after so many bands were influenced by their pioneering riot grrrl sound. That overall phenomenon is not uncommon in recent music history, with Neutral Milk Hotel and My Bloody Valentine getting similar treatment. I’d also liken it to the legacy of long-gone TV shows like “The Wire” that grow exponentially more loved after going off the air. Imagine, then, if David Simon made a sixth “Wire” season that was higher-quality than virtually its entire original run. Because that’s what Sleater-Kinney did with No Cities to Love. A massive part of their appeal in the ‘90s and ‘00s was the rawness displayed by Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss both on record and in concert. Now, after 10 years apart, their sound is wiser, cleaner and accessible, but still manages to smack you with more than enough raw, visceral intensity. It’s not easy to pull off, and the result of their effort is a razor-sharp focus and one of the best hard rock releases this decade. The album’s attitude is best captured in the chorus of riff-heavy centerpiece “A New Wave”, the best song here, belted in unison by Tucker and Brownstein: “No outline will ever hold us.” It’s an attitude that exists from the initial rumble of opener “Price Tag,” a track anchored by Tucker’s otherworldly vocal prowess, to the slow burn of the alternative-era rock in closer “Fade.” In between, it’s simply one outstanding two-to-three minute rocker after the next. “Surface Envy” bangs along with looping ascending and descending guitar lines; the title track harkens back to the bass and guitar runs of Arctic Monkeys’ debut album (which got popular around the time Sleater-Kinney initially stopped); the powerful and vicious “Gimme Love” has crunchy riffs and perfectly-timed drumming from the criminally-underrated Weiss; and Brownstein sings of staving off trauma in the screechy and proggy “Bury Our Friends.” Who knows if Sleater-Kinney will remain a thing after 2015. But we should all be grateful No Cities to Love not only exists, but recasts their already-airtight legacy in even more reverential terms.
Just shy of 100 years ago, Robert Frost wrote of the road not taken, and how going that way made “all the difference.” The easiest thing Kevin Parker could’ve done before recording his third album as Tame Impala was follow Lonerism, his breakout release with the Black Sabbath-y rocker “Elephant” Parker later said “paid for half my house.” Instead, Parker traveled the road not taken. It indeed made all the difference, because in 2015, Parker released possibly my favorite album in five years with Currents. I knew things would be different in March when opening marvel “Let It Happen” showed up, an eight-minute hell storm of sounds and movements maintaining some of Lonerism’s psychedelia but blazing a new trail with synthesizers, watery vocals and a wicked guitar line coming in late. It pointed to the perfect mix of rock, pop, soul, funk, disco, electro and dance that would become Currents. The final fruits of Parker’s labor appeared in July, and it lived up to my expectations (I mention only Parker here because he wrote every song on Currents, produced and mixed it in his Australian home studio and–are you ready for this–played every fucking instrument on it. Seriously.). Currents is not stuck in a ‘60s-era time warp: instead, Parker takes cues from Motown and Michael Jackson in many areas, including the sprawling “The Moment” and the true R&B slow jam of “Cause I’m a Man”, which I could imagine being a song MJ decided not to record for Thriller. I get why fans of Parker’s previous guitar-heavy work may not appreciate much of Currents, outside of brisk rocker “Disciples” and a few others. But this such a triumphant and creative work from start to finish with Parker going places no one else is touching in 2015. Parker manages to weave a narrative theme with his lyrics, too. Where Lonerism was about being alone, Currents is about having the ability to change, and accept change. Yes, there’s a song called “Yes I’m Changing,” but there’s also the spoken-word slice of life in “Past Life” and the acceptance of a breakup in the heart-wrenching jam “Eventually.” On the gorgeous late-album swirl of “Reality in Motion”, one of Parker’s best to date, he takes a chance on someone special. “I just need to breathe out / Decisions are approaching / Reality in motion,” he sings. That personifies the chance Parker took on Currents, resulting in astounding, innovative brilliance.