Albums Of The Year 2015
If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from putting together this year’s lists, it’s that your feelings towards a record can change dramatically once you’ve allowed it time to settle.
In 2015 there were unescapable albums with big budget PR campaigns that have failed to leave a lasting impact, and there were overlooked releases which have slowly revealed themselves to be low-key classics. We’ve compiled 100 full length releases. Some of them achieved great commercial success, some of them remained defiantly underground – but those factors have been mostly irrelevant in our decision-making. Instead, the criteria here is that these are records our staff, contributors and readers are passionate about.
HUDSON MOHAWKELantern Warp
It can sometimes be hard to know exactly how much fun we are supposed to be having. Favouring a shroud of irony over sincerity, expressions of open enjoyment leave us vulnerable, looking over our shoulders, second-guessing whether or not anyone else is going to join in. In this climate, Lantern was remarkable. From start to finish, its intent was to encourage serious, aggressive, uninhibited joy. This was euphornography. Just as it is easier to send a thousand flirty, sarcastic texts than to say, “I love you”, Lantern took the step to actually sound as big as we can all feel. Lantern challenged you not to start enjoying yourself, and it won every time.
TAME IMPALACurrents Fiction
Kevin Parker is a man with nothing left to prove. With gold and platinum albums already under his belt, Currents was always going to be a victory lap. The record allowed guitars to take a backseat to promote swirling, woozy synths. Sounding more effortlessly high-altitude than ever before, it felt like Parker was sing to us from atop an enormous helium balloon heading for the outer reaches of the earth’s atmosphere. A break-up record by all accounts, Currents examined heartbreak within the context of the unstoppable upward trajectory of Parker’s career, feeling simultaneously intimate and enormous.
RP BOOFingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints Planet Mu
There’s a confidence to Kavain Space, aka RP Boo’s footwork. It’s coarse and unfettered, frequently sparring between sonically debased drum samples. It’s also very specific. Classic even. Instead of growling with syncopated structure, it locates the weak spots of your body and releases round after round of bloodied jabs. Fingers, Bank Pads and Shoe Prints was an attestation that footwork’s gaudy protest against stagnant club culture is no longer revered solely by the dance crews of Chicago’s basements. It was an international roar in favour of footwork’s permanence, acting as the defining record from the scene’s equivalent to Juan Atkins. And as the closing segment of B’Ware crassly insisted, it may just be time to ‘move the juke out the way’ and embrace the future as told by RP Boo.
SUFJAN STEVENSCarrie and Lowell Asthmatic Kitty
It’s undeniable that Carrie and Lowell is an honest, if not heart-wrenching, piece of art. Written for Stevens’ late mother, whose mental health struggles and alcoholism meant that she was often absent from his life, the album is a doleful lament of a broken childhood. This wasn’t the tinsel-clad Stevens whose music comes clad in light-up suits and bird wings, but Stevens at his most stripped-down and vulnerable. It was account of the universal feelings of loneliness and yearning for what is lost – and therein lied its poignant beauty.
HUNEEHunch Music Rush Hour
When Hunch Music won ‘best album’ at the Dutch 3VOOR12 independent music awards, Hunee was thankful, but cautious in his reply: “as musicians and people working within sound … that’s our work and our struggle, and our joy and eventually our reward.” You got the sense that such praise was appreciated, but superfluous: Hunee truly made this album for himself. Hunch Music tunnel visions into Hun Choi’s world: full of contemplative sweeps of colour and piled high with dust laden jazz records, an overall sense of restless exploration settled in the grooves. Underpinned with the infectious warmth of his DJ sets, Hunch Music existed outside of dancefloor conventions, fusing the physicality of dance music with an enchanting, abstract, human depth. Inspired by field recordings and the expansive sounds that make up his vast record collection, Hunch Music was brimming with character, and with it Choi forged a style of his own. A singularly stunning addition to electronic music.
JULIA HOLTERHave You In My Wilderness Domino
On Feel You, the opening track of Have You in My Wilderness, Holter asks “Can I feel you? Are you mythological?” It’s a question for somebody else in this instance, but throughout the rest of the record it seems to be something she asks of herself. When compared to her previous three albums, all rooted in works of fiction, HYIMW traded the fantastical for the feverish and richly intimate, to spell-binding success. In terms of songwriting, in 2015 Julia Holter remained almost unparalleled.
“Trust your intuition. I am freedom. Forever.” This what Miguel – clad in a tasseled white leather biker jacket – told the crowd when we caught a glimpse of his messianic world tour. Starry-eyed proverbs like this didn’t even seem corny anymore. We’d already fallen head-first under the spell of Wildheart. Somehow, through the sheen of the production and the effortlessness of his performance, Miguel managed to reignite the fire of classic RnB and make it seem brand new. Timeless tales of porno shops, Californian dreams and coffee in the morning.
HOLLY HERNDONPlatform 4AD
Following 2012’s Movement, Holly Herndon returned to coax further secrets from the hyper-emotional core of the digital landscape, and the idea of reclaiming was present throughout. You might assume, and not unfairly, that any record concerning itself with a post-Snowden internet would be largely characterised by pretty grim vibes. But instead, Platform refused to despair, instead asking, “how can we fix this?”
Despite offering up some of Herndon’s most accessible work to date, Platform retained a crafted, academic feel; a focused set of studies carefully dissecting their respective subject matters. Paradise in this life? Maybe, said Platform’s deeply engaged, avant laptop-pop, but not without a making a conscious effort to. As third track Unequal put it, “change the shape of our future, to be unafraid, to break away.”
BJÖRKVulnicra One Little Indian
Shortly after recording Vulnicura, a devastating document of her mid-life divorce, Björk went on a pub crawl in central Reykjavík. At midnight, she led her posse of collaborators to a hip-hop club called Prikid, where, in the words of an accompanying New York Times writer, she “danced nonstop, sang along and downed shots of birch schnapps until nearly 4 a.m.” It’s a telling anecdote that’ll surprise no one familiar with her art’s wild spirit.
Vulnicura is an album of heartbreak, but also of manic enlightenment. Its unique sorrow is the vertigo of total self-understanding, reflecting a life lived in constant proximity to the deepest truths of humanity, the kind most of us only comprehend at a loved one’s deathbed. The result is that you’re not dragged down to its level so much as elevated in wonder at the breadth of human emotion. Some of the lyrics bordered on melodrama – “My soul torn apart, my spirit is broken / Into the fabric of all, he is woven,” goes a verse in Black Lake, undercut by grand, weeping strings that stutter and soar – but thankfully, the album contains a degree of redemption, as Björk discovers oblivion is its own kind of sanctuary. Listening along, you’ll experience that simple truth as a revelation.
KENDRICK LAMARTo Pimp A Butterfly Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope
On Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city, an excerpt of a voicemail message from his mother was tucked into the track Real:
“I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ‘em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement, that’s the best way to give back.”
Sure enough, To Pimp A Butterfly chronicled Lamar’s subsequent ascent from “a peasant, to a prince, to a motherfucking king”. The story he came back was one of guilt and depression, one in which his integrity was threatened by the seductive – but destructive – temptations of the music industry and the intoxicating ego-massage of fame. But K.Dot survived with his soul intact. He’d learnt how to eradicate internalised self-hatred and replace it with self-love and positivity, how to break out of the cocoon and take flight as the butterfly. He had words of encouragement to give back.
But despite the deeply personal themes explored in its many layers, To Pimp A Butterfly is a record for the public of 2015, and it’s the most staunchly political record to have dominated the mainstream in recent memory. In the last few years, the international media has woken up to the harassment and violence directed towards African American citizens by members the US police force – many of who have appeared almost immune to sufficient punishment from the judicial system. On its first day of release, To Pimp A Butterfly was streamed 9.6 million times on Spotify. Footage has emerged of Alright being chanted at police officers following tensions at a Black Lives Matter conference in Cleveland, Ohio, and at this year’s Million Man March in Washington D.C. In 2015, Kendrick Lamar’s words of encouragement resonated with many, many people.
In the current landscape, it can be so tempting to indulge in nostalgic daydreams, to browse the recent past for eras when popular culture always evolved in conjunction with socio-political shifts and the emergence of new generations. To Pimp A Butterfly was an album which was deeply invested in the history 20th century African American music of course, but it was one that weaved together threads of jazz, funk, soul and hip-hop into a new fabric; with Kendrick’s voice being the most ground-breaking instrument of all. The album’s references served as a rally call, a reprisal of the idea of music’s inherent revolutionary spirit. A door has been kicked open. To Pimp A Butterfly is radical music for the masses.