Emerald Recommends the best albums of 2015
To wrap up the best of 2015, the Emerald arts and culture desk highlights the best albums of 2015, with each writer’s personal top albums.
Listen to the Spotify playlist here:
Emerson Malone’s top albums:
5. Star Wars – Wilco
In Star Wars, Wilco isn’t as self-serious and the stakes feel much lower lower. Nonetheless, there’s still plenty of quintessential Wilco-ness in this 33-minute expedition. Nels Cline is still an undeniable guitarist and Jeff Tweedy still reminds you that he’s lonely (which he’s probably said aloud more than anyone else in the music industry). The record swivels from its jarring opener “EKG” to fuzzy glam-rock cuts that recall T. Rex, like “Random Name Generator” to softer ballads, like “Magnetized.” Despite its spontaneous release, this isn’t some EP of haphazardly assembled studio tracks; it’s another exceptional chapter in the epic Wilco saga.
4. Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens
Despite the interminable melancholy, there isn’t a moment on C&L that sounds pitiful, or even self-indulgent. In “Fourth of July” Sufjan has a conversation with his mother, soon before she died in 2013: “Did you get enough love, my little dove / Why do you cry?” His wispy vocals over the subdued pulse of “John My Beloved” frames his grief: ” There’s only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking I’m dead.” C&L doesn’t have the orchestral frills of Illinoise and The Avalanche, nor does it share any DNA with the maximalist cyborg-explosion of 2010’s Age of Adz. Sufjan’s ninth album is probably his greatest. Most people would keep this sort of intimate, revealing look into their innermost struggle to themselves; luckily for us all, Sufjan chose to share it.
3. Divers – Joanna Newsom
Divers is an overhaul of beauty. The lyrics are toweringly dense, with references to Dutch masters, Ozymandias and James Joyce and the lush, baroque-pop arrangements — with harp, piano, bells and brass — are radiant. The closing track, “Time, As a Symptom” shares the album’s thesis: “Time is not a symptom of love / Love is a symptom of time.” It clocks in at 52 minutes, but this album could be on repeat for hours, and you would still find more to unpack and discover. It defies easy explanation. In other words, it’s a Joanna Newsom record. You won’t find Divers on the Spotify playlist above, as you’d might’ve guessed, since earlier this year Newsom called the service the “banana of the music industry.”
2. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure – John Grant
The title comes from a clunky translation of “mid-life crisis” (grey tickles) in Icelandic, and “nightmare” (black pressure) in Turkish. Grant’s honeyed baritone conveys his bombastic hubris, and his bleak worldview is on full display here. Sonically, the album is as bipolar and erratic as the character Grant puts on, from the eardrum-blasting cut “You and Him” with The Dresden Doll’s Amanda Palmer, to the funky “Disappointing” and the glacially paced “Global Warming,” in which Grant claims that the climate change is “ruining his fair complexion.” Truly, the only unifying element to Grey Tickles is Grant’s demented sense of humor. This irate manifesto is produced by John Congleton (St. Vincent, Swans).
1. Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett
The Aussie singer-songwriter knits more anecdotes into this album than some musicians can squeeze into their whole career. In her articulate, languid tone, she spins tales within 11 tracks that wander between the road anxiety of a weary driver (“Dead Fox,” in which she calls the carrion sculptures of road kill “taxidermied kangaroos” and “possum Jackson Pollack”) and an anthem for thirty-somethings who struggle with being invited to an outing, but can’t summon the energy to make it: “I wanna go out, but I want to stay home!” (“No One Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party”) Barnett’s vivid writing is impeccable, and her highly original voice finds a profound depth in the most mundane of subjects.
Craig Wright’s top albums:
5. No Cities To Love – Sleater-Kinney
Sleater-Kinney disbanded in 2006 after The Woods, which (in my opinion) is among the strongest rock albums of all time. Luckily, its return record packs the typical S-K punch of drop tuned guitars and politically charged lyrics by Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein backed by the Earth-rattling drumming of Janet Weiss. From the opening notes of “Price Tag,” it’s clear that S-K returned to its world in full form, but with a more mature sound than ever before.
4. The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us – Beach Slang
James Alex is the rare breed of songwriter who can, in the span of a 28-minute album, write charged punk songs worth moshing to (“Ride The Wild Haze”), radio-friendly rock songs begging to break out (“Bad Art And Weirdo Ideas), and disillusioned ballads about mortality and loneliness (“Too Late To Die Young”). Think the Replacements meet the Japandroids and Jawbreaker. The depth and bleeding honesty of Beach Slang translates to a well-written rock ‘n’ roll manifesto about finding your place in the world through music. It’s the most fun you can have with an album this year.
3. I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty
Father John Misty is the unapologetic character of former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman who writes sonically stunning love songs that blend apocalyptic imagery with the saving grace of love (and lots of sex and drugs). Each song sounds vastly different than any other, yet they all flow together seamlessly, aided by a healthy dose of blatant sarcasm. Tillman pokes fun at the idea that most people’s biggest problem in the U.S.A. is the fight against boredom in the forlorn centerpiece, “Bored In The USA.”
2. Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens
Often armed with little more than an acoustic guitar and his haunted-whisper singing style, Sufjan Stevens relives the heartbreak and abandonment he experienced as a young child from his bipolar and schizophrenic mother as she battled drug addiction. The lyrics and music serve as foils to each other on many songs, as the music shields the dark undertones of the lyrical content. Many of the songs nod to Oregon, where his spent time with his mother as a child, including the thoughtful “Eugene,” and “All Of Me Wants All Of You,” in which Sufjan sits on Spencer’s Butte. This is an album that can completely envelop you in its world until it calmly fades into nothing at the finale, returning us to the world that Stevens has so gracefully created an escape from.
1. Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett
Few artists can make the mundane seem like an overwhelming existential crisis. Whether she’s contemplating her future after seeing cracks in a wall (“An Illustration Of Loneliness”), agonizing over whether she should buy organic vegetables (“Dead Fox”) or attempting to impress a fellow swimmer and passing out (“Aqua Profunda”), the asthmatic Australian Courtney Barnett created a masterpiece with Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. The songs breathe life into issues both great and tiny, with “Kim’s Caravan” calling for the protection of the Great Barrier Reef, and the album’s emotional highlight of “Depreston,” in which Barnett decides she would rather destroy the deceased estate property she is looking to buy than begin a new life in the home. Barnett sings “Put me on a pedestal, I’ll only disappoint you / Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you” in “Pedestrian At Best.” Despite running the risk of being exploited, this is an exceptional album from one of the brightest songwriters around.
Honorable Mentions: Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes; The Waterfall – My Morning Jacket; To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar; Painted Shut – Hop Along; Too – FIDLAR.
Daniel Bromfield’s top albums:
5. Archy Marshall – A New Place 2 Drown
Ostensibly a low-stakes beat tape designed to accompany a book and movie, A New Place 2 Drown nonetheless encapsulates the world Marshall’s spent his entire career trying to create. The King Krule mastermind’s first album under his birth name uses cloudy house chords and clanking, evocative percussion to create a sense of everyday awe, the kind you get from walking down the street stoned and noticing small, quotidian shit you’d normally pass by.
4. Dirty Sprite 2 – Future
Atlanta rapper Future’s third and easily best album balances ugliness with smoothness, misery with pop smarts, ennui with energy. There’s something repulsive even in its poppiest moments, if only because the mere idea of partying to this unhappy music is enough to make one feel a bit gross. But it’s hard not to zone out to Future’s ambient monotone and the spacious cathedrals of sound behind him – not to mention the hooks around every turn.
3. Jazmine Sullivan – Reality Show
An unlikely miracle from a still-young Philadelphia singer-songwriter who supposedly quit the industry after releasing two cult albums in the late ‘00s. Sullivan’s a whip-smart songwriter with an sardonic sense of humor, and she’s in character-portrait mode here, giving us enough detail to feel like we know the people she’s singing about but withholding enough for us to make our own decisions about whether we should root for them or not.
2. DJ Koze – DJ-Kicks
DJ Koze’s sense of humor about his art is what makes him one of the most engaging contemporary dance producers. On this 70-minute mix, Koze throws together styles wantonly, wrings pathos out of a William Shatner monologue, and rambles endlessly. The only original composition here, “I Haven’t Been Everywhere But It’s On My List,” features the most devastating vocal sample I’ve heard this year – which, according to the video, was made by an opera-singing T-Rex. Koze can instill profound emotion in his audience, but he’d ultimately rather us all have a good time.
1. Fetty Wap – Fetty Wap
Fetty Wap is hip-hop’s most affable humanist. His breakthrough hit “Trap Queen” is a rapturous ode to the girl he loves and slings drugs with, delivered in a muscular vibrato that’s more emotional than it has any right to be, and most of his other songs are about either her or his Remy Boyz crew. We get a sense of the gravity of these human connections from the music on his self-titled debut. This is an album about the friendships that offer the only respite from the harsh reality of having to sell drugs for a living. The sense is that without his friends and his Trap Queen to keep him sane, his spirits wouldn’t be as high. This is an album about making the best of a bad situation and finding happiness in the midst of pain – a contrast embodied in that incredible, quavering voice of his.
Honorable mentions: A New Place 2 Drown by Archy Marshall, Barter 6 by Young Thug, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside by Earl Sweatshirt, What A Time To Be Alive by Drake & Future, In Colour by Jamie xx
Alex Ruby’s top albums:
5. So The Flies Don’t Come – Milo
One of the most obscure releases that came out this year, Milo’s newest album is full of laid-back yet complicated production and deeply layered lyrics. Kenny Segal’s production behind Milo’s flow is abstract and dissonant, but this perfectly fits Milo’s style. The tight beats create comfortable cushions for him to rely on. Milo’s lyricism is also at its best here, spinning rhymes and references into intricate personal philosophies disguised as hip-hop songs.
4. Painted Shut – Hop Along
The most alluring thing about Hop Along is Frances Quinlan’s powerful and emotional voice. It pierces through each song on the album with raw intensity. The instrumentals make an equal impression as her signature raspy voice. The guitar and bass are punchy and accompany the vocals perfectly. Whenever the drums come in, the songs explode into pure emotion that carry her vocals throughout. The songs are written with sincerity and care, bringing emotion back to modern music.
3. No Cities to Love – Sleater-Kinney
Sleater-Kinney came back after nine years with their most accessible album to date. It’s full of energetic songs that play to each of the members’ strengths. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s vocals are still fierce as hell. Janet Weiss’s drums still hit hard. It’s unbelievable that a band could come back with an album this solid after a hiatus. They don’t reminisce on old experiences either, rather they play songs based on modern anxieties and problems. As long as Sleater-Kinney is alive, rock can’t die.
2. Harmlessness – The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die
In the past, the band with the ridiculously long name have sat firmly as flag-bearers in the emo revival movement but with Harmlessness, TWIABP&IANLATD have matured into a more varied and sophisticated band. It has gotten rid of its screamo vocalist and messy chords and instead turned in a beautiful album with cascading post-rock song structures and heartfelt lyrics about depression. However, it maintains an element of warmth, managing not to be an entirely sad album. It really shows how far the emo revival has come and where it can go in the future.
1. White Men Are Black Men Too – Young Fathers
Young Fathers are difficult to describe. Coming off of two mix-tapes and one album, you’d think the Scottish trio are some sort of alternative hip-hop or R&B group. With its newest release, the band gets even fuzzier. It’s an eclectic mix of hip-hop, pop, lo-fi and even rock. It’s moody and atmospheric and, at the same time, catchy and relatively easy to listen to. It’s my personal album of the year because it is so different from any other release I heard in 2015. It’s at times beautiful and jarring, like a silent disco. Sure, the lyrics can be confusing and sometimes contradictory (hence the album’s name) but the weird rhyme schemes match the confusing, contradictory production. I sincerely think this album might be ahead of its time. It’s an album for a time when genres and influences don’t matter anymore and music can just be played and enjoyed for the sake of music.
Honorable Mentions: Have You In My Wilderness – Julia Holter; Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens; Surf – Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment; VEGA INTL. Night School – Neon Indian; In Colour – Jamie xx, To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar; Every Open Eye – CHVRCHES; Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett; Ivy Tripp – Waxahatchee.
Meerah Powell’s top albums:
5. Painted Shut – Hop Along
Painted Shut, Hop Along’s second LP, is an indisputable force of nature. Led by Frances Quinlan’s raspy, emotionally evocative vocals layered over pristine instrumentation — with intricate guitar and powerful percussion — Painted Shut is beautifully executed, to say the least. Referencing waitresses in waffle houses and tossing horseshoe crabs back into the sand, the album is guiltlessly personal and holds a sense of familiarity, akin to driving through the streets of your hometown.
4. The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us – Beach Slang
Beach Slang’s bandcamp describes itself as a band of “Guitar, bass and drums. Played loudly.” But it’s clear from the first listen that this band is much more than that. The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us is an album that perfectly sums up its title’s sentiment: the on-going, and sometimes seemingly impossible search for community and friendship for those who are deemed loners or outcasts. Beach Slang creates ripping punk rock anthems that are extremely relatable for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider.
3. Fading Frontier – Deerhunter
After surviving a close encounter with death, Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox found the cathartic inspiration for this release in what may be the only positive thing ever to arise from someone getting hit by a car. In Fading Frontier, Deerhunter brings forth its specific hodgepodge of sounds — indie rock, noise pop, ambient — in a way that both takes crucial parts from the band’s discography and still creates something completely new.
2. asdfasdf – katie dey
Australian artist katie dey’s asdfasdf is by far one of the most interesting releases I have heard this year. The seven track release uses various electronic elements (airy synth, glitched out static, crisp snare hits) that in combination could easily be overstimulating and jarring, but instead portray an immense amount of emotion with its beautiful composite of sounds. A glitchy, distorted wonderland, asdfasdf is kind-hearted and warm at points, yet balanced well with a tinge of chilly, electronic melancholy.
1. Dogs on Acid – Dogs on Acid
Formed from members of defunct emo bands Snowing and Algernon Cadwallader, and current alternative folk band Hop Along, Dogs on Acid fits the definition of a supergroup, and it definitely created something super this year with its debut self-titled album. Borrowing both from its emo background as well as from ’90s influences — acts such as Superchunk and Pavement — Dogs on Acid serves as an incredibly solid and addicting release. Playful, noodly guitar over pounding percussion fills the soundscape of this LP and although many of the songs are about heartache and betrayal, Dogs on Acid retains an optimistic outlook that sounds ageless.
Honorable mentions: Depression Cherry – Beach House; Teens of Style – Car Seat Headrest; Beach Music – Alex G; Skin Gets Hot – Fraternal Twin; O.K. – Eskimeaux; Untethered Moon – Built to Spill; Before The World Was Big – Girlpool.