Top Albums of 2015 | Brett Berliner

2015MusicKendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is packed with creativity and brilliance from start to finish.

 

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Sleater-Kinney | No Cities to Love (Sub Pop)
It’s not clear that a follow up to Sleater-Kinney’s near-perfect 2005 release The Woods was wanted or needed. As the band members began to move in different directions, this felt like the perfect epilogue to an excellent career. To this day, The Woods remains one of my favorite albums of all-time, and it was very possible that a new release might just be a watered-down rehash of their previous efforts. Doubting them was a huge mistake, as No Cities to Love not only meets The Woods, but it surpasses it in many ways. In one album, Sleater-Kinney has basically wrapped up their entire career, moving from the aggressive to the radio friendly, often within the same track. It’s everything that’s great about their style, peaceful and reflective, and then seconds later bone chilling and intense. Every listen highlights a new favorite track, and while this actually would be the perfect goodbye album, I’ll never make the mistake of doubting them again.

Kendrick Lamar | To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg Entertainment)
Every year, there is a true classic album that takes a little bit longer to sink in for its listeners. Each of Kendrick Lamar’s releases have embodied these feelings completely, and To Pimp a Butterfly is no different. The marketing was especially strange, considering the pre-release singles: first, a studio version of “I” that’s nowhere to be found on the full release, and later, an incredibly dark and angry “The Blacker the Berry.” This may be a side effect of how epic of a scale Kendrick is going for and how difficult at times it can be to pick out small pieces, which is compounded by the fact that his amazing, rapid-fire lyrics can be difficult to keep up with at times. It’s definitely a worthy investment to make, as this album is packed with creativity and brilliance from start to finish.

Grimes | Art Angels (4AD)
Grimes’ debut, Visions, focused on being both trippy and catchy while creating an immersive, dark pop atmosphere. It succeeded in many ways at introducing a talented artist to the world, and hints of what made Visions great are what Grimes captures fully on her next masterpiece, Art Angels. Her exciting production work has evolved by introducing more nuance and skilled execution of individual melodies and notes than before. While she continues to play off the dichotomy of pop and darkness, this time out, she finds a way to even better toe the line between melody and insanity perfectly.

Vince Staples | Summertime ‘06 (Def Jam Recordings)
Despite upbeat hip-hop having a successful year, the best genre albums were the darker atmospheric releases by Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar. I admit to being unfamiliar with Staples’ previous work, but after I consumed his back catalog, I realized Summertime ‘06 shows a major step up in his ability. The ambience is scored beautifully by the slow downbeats of No I.D., who allows the album to maintain a consistent voice. However, the star here is without a doubt Staples, who delivers intricate lyrics and flow in developing a presence on the mic that shouldn’t be possible at the young age of 22.

Tame Impala | Currents (Interscope Records)
While the first two Tame Impala records will likely never leave regular rotation, it was time to mature their sound. Kevin Parker made a major effort to move Currents in a different direction, toning down the heavy bass that punctuated their style and bringing a more abstract angle to their songwriting approach. Whereas previous attempts often sounded straight out of the 1970s, here they rely on the past as an influence more than homage. It may take some time to fully appreciate this album due to its complexity, but after it does finally click for the first time, it proves that Currents is deserving of all its accolades.

Mikal Cronin | MCIII (Merge Records)
Mikal Cronin is awesome for many reasons, most notably his ear for a great tune as well as his musical evolution. His first record, Mikal Cronin, was incredibly raw but still catchy and melodic, while the follow-up, MCII, was more refined and polished. MCIII finds a perfect balance by keeping the brash guitar riffs of his first album while building in some of the more powerful and broad elements of the second. Although layered and deep, a first listen lets MCIII feel immediately familiar and accessible. Cronin builds perfectly to his crescendos and conclusions, delivering the best-paced album of the year.

Courtney Barnett | Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Marathon Artists)
Finding a perfect balance between playful and artistic in music can be incredibly difficult, so when an artist like Courtney Barnett succeeds at it, it really stands out. Barnett relies on an ear for melodies and great storytelling, putting together a completely unique and immediately catchy record. The result is an album that’s full of creativity and wit, relying on some really killer riffs to ignite what looks to be an exciting career.

Father John Misty | I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop)
As a storyteller and songwriter, Father John Misty displays a growth that is immense. While I Love You, Honeybear can be a bit extra melancholy at times, lacking any sort of fun, its tone and sound is so unique that it never gets too depressing. Most bands spend their entire career trying to fit as much power into a single four-minute long song as the former J. Tillman has now done 11 times in a row.

Wavves | V (Ghost Ramp)
2013 was an excellent year in music, shown best by the fact that the last Wavves record, Afraid of Heights, missed out on my top five. That album was a standout in the band’s catalog, as it was darker and more mature than anything else they had released. It’s slightly disappointing that, in many ways, V has regressed back toward their previous album, sounding much more like King of the Beach than Afraid of Heights, perhaps responding to criticism of the latter and its deviation from their trademark surf-punk style. The good news is that doesn’t take anything away from V, which succeeds in its attempts to build a catchy, fun listen. It’s never tedious or boring, not even for a second.

Deerhunter | Fading Frontier (4AD)
My preference in music is to always lean toward brevity, because it’s too easy to overplay even the catchiest chorus. Hence, it’s strange for me to say that, now that Deerhunter cleaned up their sound and released a very short and tight album, I wish it was longer. While their new, stripped-down approach works in every way, they could have used even just one strong closer beyond the slightly anticlimactic “Carrion.” That might have pushed Fading Frontier into classic territory, but as it is, Bradford Cox has the band moving in a great new direction.

Jamie xx | In Colour (Young Turks)
It’s only been five years since the first xx album, which is hard to believe as it seems longer. Although their producer, Jamie xx, did a nice job of setting ambience and building on sparse sounds and mood, the record seems incredibly dated now. While listening to In Colour, it’s almost impossible to believe it’s the same creative force behind that release, as sparse is the exact opposite of what can be found here. The album title works perfectly, as if the xx represent black-and-white television, Jamie’s solo music is like watching a color broadcast for the first time. It takes influence heavily from house and hip-hop, and the two collaborations with the xx’s Romy are highlights, and hopefully a preview of what’s to come on their forthcoming release.

Björk | Vulnicura (One Little Indian)
It feels great to have Björk return to form, because many of her fans had been disappointed repeatedly over the past few years. Biophilia¸ her previous release, was a perfect example: Its app tie-in was baffling, and the album itself was nearly inaccessible. Vulnicura is absolutely a return to “normal” Björk, which is still weirder than nearly everyone else. It had been in regular rotation for me for months before I found out that the Haxan Cloak was a major contributor, and he makes a huge impact as the ambience and power he always brings meshes perfectly with Björk’s style. Finally, she has again released an album that can stand with any of her past successes.

Wilco | Star Wars (dBpm Records)
Rarely has an anticipated released from a respected band seemed so nonchalant. It was announced as a surprise free download, with the cute cat picture cover and almost lazy title seeming to embody their feelings. In the case of Star Wars, it seems to be a blessing, as Wilco has honed in exactly on what makes their style tick. Jeff Tweedy is at his best here as the band tones down the experimentation in releasing their tightest record yet.

Hot Chip | Why Make Sense? (Domino)
Hot Chip has their formula down almost too well. Why Make Sense? is every bit as good as their previous album, In Our Heads, but it’s similar enough to the point that it feels a bit regressive. It’s definitely better for the band to stick within their formula than to fail completely, but hopefully their next release will expand a little on their style as One Life Stand did.

Sufjan Stevens | Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
This is a very critically acclaimed record for one that’s so hard to like. It sits firmly as soft folk, a genre that is not widely appealing and requires heavy investment to digest. Even further, it’s impossible to talk about Carrie & Lowell without mentioning the inspiration for the album, Stevens’ mentally ill mother. While it would be easy to write off the album as merely depressing, Stevens does a fine job of balancing the mood, often with tales about the titular Lowell, his one-time stepfather, a much more present parent than his mother. Still, there’s an overarching feeling of dread that can make a black cloud hang over Carrie & Lowell. In that respect, it’s reminiscent of last year’s Sun Kil Moon effort, Benji. Both releases are masterpieces that can still be very hard to listen to.

Beach House | Depression Cherry (Sub Pop)
Although Beach House delivered two full-length releases in 2015 fewer than two months apart, Depression Cherry appears on this list over Thank Your Lucky Stars mostly because it was released earlier. While both albums feature Beach House’s signature dreaminess, they’ve both evolved by featuring a grounded and physical nature, focusing on the abstract mostly in choruses and bridges instead of every moment. However, by the time Thank Your Lucky Stars was released, I simply wasn’t ready for another Beach House album, and as a result, it was never able to displace its predecessor in full rotation.

Dr. Dre | Compton (Aftermath – Interscope)
Hip-hop fans had been waiting for years for Detox, the follow up to Dre’s seminal 2001, but in August 2015, he finally canceled its release. It wasn’t shocking, but disappointing, as it had been 16 years since his last album. As a result, it was a welcome surprise when later that week, Compton (the pseudo soundtrack for the film Straight Outta Compton) dropped with little fanfare and no real radio hit, an extremely different path for Dr. Dre. The lack of hype around Compton made it easy to consider it an afterthought until about halfway through the third track, “Genocide.” At that point, the song’s absolutely ridiculous beat matched perfectly with one of Kendrick Lamar’s typical killer verses, showing what makes Dre such a legend. Every song on this album benefits from his ability to give the focus to his extremely talented guests while utilizing his ability as the best rap producer of all time. Although Dre claims this is his last album, it doesn’t seem like an epitaph, as his knack for staying present means he could remain this relevant in any decade.

Neon Indian | VEGA INTL. Night School (Static Tongues)
It’s always impressive when an album exudes the flavor of a past decade without being derivative, while still sounding completely current. Neon Indian has nailed that feeling exactly on VEGA INTL. Night School, as he effortlessly weaves in moment after moment of ’80s influence. It’s still clearly created in 2015, but he’s able to slip in moments that callback artists as mainstream as Prince, while turning around into the abstract noise for which he’s often known. This helps him create one of 2015’s most unique releases.

Viet Cong | s/t (Jagjaguwar)
Unfortunately, much of the buzz surrounding the band relates to its name and not its music. The buzz should be focusing on the fact that this self-titled release is one of the rare albums that flows perfectly from start to finish, wrapping up with the epic closer, “Death,” an 11-minute ode to a former bandmate that is incredibly powerful in every way.

Thee Oh Sees | Mutilator Defeated at Last (Castle Face)
Listening to this album is slightly depressing. Not because it isn’t excellent; it features 2015’s best guitar riffs and the trademark Oh Sees transitions that will turn head nodding into spinning almost immediately. The sadness comes from the fact that Mutilator Defeated at Last is only available on Soundcloud as opposed to the much more common services Spotify or Google Music. It’s still free and easy to find for fans, but when a different streaming service is preferred, it can be difficult to reach the audience Thee Oh Sees deserve.

Future | Dirty Sprite 2 (A1 Recordings)
It’s always a treat when a rapper turns from a mixtape star into a full blown MC as Future does here on Dirty Sprite 2. It was impossible not to play “Move that Dope” and “I’ll Be Yours” on repeat, but beyond that, Honest offered little depth. While nobody would confuse Future with Nas, he has developed his songwriting to the point that it becomes a strength instead of a weakness. Whereas previous releases lacked depth and seemed destined only for club music, Future tries to avoid that here by providing a darker atmosphere than most hip-hop albums. Mix that with Future’s ability to select incredible beats, and Dirty Sprite 2 is an impressive step up for a still-young career.

Moon Duo | Shadow of the Sun (Sacred Bones Record)
It seems obvious, but switching out a drum machine for a live drummer is crucial in helping Moon Duo create their tightest and most captivating record to date. It’s not surprising that a psychedelic band can lose their way a bit, even on purpose, but Shadow of the Sun seems much more focused, like taking a guided tour rather than just floating. They still rely on their trademark upbeat-psych sound, creating an album that feels like half its running time.

Alabama Shakes | Sound & Color (ATO)
I previously found myself interested more in the idea of Alabama Shakes, rather than their actual music. Their sound was fresh, but it took catching a few of their live performances and spending some time with Sound & Color to get hooked. In this case, it feels like the band has grown into their sound and established themselves as unique. Before, they seemed to just be a “blues” rock band, but they successfully experiment with more genres here, relying heavily on Brittany Howard’s excellent range.

Leon Bridges | Coming Home (Columbia)
Leon Bridges has the best voice of any artist to come out in years. It could easily end there; he sounds right out of 1960s R&B and can stand alongside luminaries such as Otis Redding. Unfortunately, Bridgers’ debut seems to follow a pretty standard path, often saying, in effect, “Hey, remember this song?” While Coming Home is not exactly derivative, it could use a few fresh elements along with a trademark ballad. Even considering all that, it succeeds in featuring an artist who has an extremely bright future.

Joey Bada$$ | B4.DA.$$ (Cinematic – Relentless)
This album shows the importance of striking while the iron is hot. A few years back, Bada$$’s guest appearances had him labeled as the next big thing, but getting tossed around labels and waiting so long halted his momentum. This lead to an unfortunate January release, during which many albums are missed. It’s a shame, as this is nearly as strong a debut as one could have hoped for. The excellent production hearkens back to several different mid-’90s NY rap artists, but the real star is Joey’s otherworldly flow.

Diamond Rugs | Cosmetics (Sycamore Records)
As an aside, I somehow listened to Diamond Rugs’ self-titled debut for way too long before knowing that the band was actually a supergroup, featuring (among others) members of Deer Tick and Black Lips. That just shows I might listen to too much music, but as a huge Black Lips fan, it’s shameful. Either way, Cosmetics does feel like a mix of both bands, and filled my void of a missing Black Lips album. While not the deepest album of the year, it’s easy to tear through and never gets old.

Colleen Green | I Want to Grow Up (Hardly Art)
I love when album titles fit their message perfectly. Whereas Colleen Green relied previously on catchy melodies, she’s developed her style into a much fuller experience. There’s no wasted moment in any song, and while she’s missing some of the charm of Sock It to Me as well as a true standout track, I Want to Grow Up has the feeling of the album before the album.

Wavves & Cloud Nothings | No Life for Me (Ghost Ramp)
According to Spotify, this is the album to which I listened most all the way through, second only to No Cities to Love (although To Pimp a Butterfly stayed in my car CD player longer than both). It’s not surprising, as it’s basically an EP at 21 minutes, but because it does contain so many full but short songs, it’s considered a full length. Yes, it’s a collaboration between two of my favorite bands, so I’m biased. Yes, it sounds unfinished. Yes, there are no narratives. But there’s nothing else to say, except that No Life for Me is full of bad-ass songs.

A$AP Rocky | At. Long. Last. A$AP. (RCA Records)
It was easy to miss this one in comparison to his debut, LongLiveA$AP simply because nothing hit like his early singles. And although this release can be a bit much (its one-hour, six-minute running time seems even longer), it’s still a damn good rap album.

Blur | The Magic Whip (Warner Bros. Records)
Hey, a new Blur album! It just feels good to say that. The Magic Whip is a little bit bigger and more mature, a little bit louder and more confident, which is not surprising based on what Damon Albarn has been doing in the same time. While The Magic Whip lacks any revolutionary ideas, it honestly turns out to be one of the best releases in Blur’s pretty solid catalog. | Brett Berliner

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