My (Belated) Top 10 of 2015
I figured I would start off my music blog experience with a look back at what I would consider one of the greatest years in music this decade.
2015 was a fantastic year for music. It was one of those rare years that had a mixture of great follow-ups from veteran artists and exciting debuts from new artists. Looking back, I’m glad that last year was the first year I decided to really involve myself in what was going on in popular music. While there were obvious disappointments (Kintsugi, I’m looking at you), there were a number of stand outs, which I will detail here.
Since I want to go into a little detail with each album, I’m going stick to mainly the top 10 albums here. If you want to see a bigger list, here’s the link to it on Allmusic, with my personal ratings for each:
(no. 5 won’t be on there, but that’s cause they aren’t on a recognized label…yet)
10. The Decemberists - What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
I’ve got to admit, over the years I’ve actually become a really big fan of The King is Dead. I know, I know, you Decemberists purists can go ahead and stop reading now, but dang it, it was a superb folk-rock album. Was it authentic to their usual style? No. Was it REM-like? Yeah, I guess. But I’ve never been an REM fan, and TKiD was great, so they must’ve done something right.
Regardless of how you feel about TKiD, What a Terrible Word, What a Beautiful Word is a fantastic return to form with ornate arrangements, ballads about off-kilter characters, and their usual folky foundations. Not only that, but they brought the clean-cut songwriting of TKiD with them in the process, with great pop contributions like the anthemic “Make You Better”. However, nothing sums up the sentiment of the album more than the opener, “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, which depicts a band reassuring their audience that “We belong to ya”, and I can confidently say the Decemberists do that quite well with this album.
9. Selah Sue - Reason
Back in 2013, this amazing Belgian R&B singer became the first artist I would ever see at a music festival. I had never heard of her before, but my cousin had done a great deal of research before and told me she was phenomenal. At the end of her 30 minute set, I understood the hype. With fantastic vocals, amazing stage presence, and an amazingly funky backing band, I was hooked immediately.
Sadly, her new album, Reason, has yet to be released in the US, as I guess the dismal sales of her eponymous debut didn’t encourage the US label to bring over another album. But Reason is to Selah Sue what 1989 was to Red: it was an imminent pop-crossover that, deep down, we knew we all had been waiting for. With amazing funk-infused R&B tracks, like “Alone” and “I Won’t Go For More”, to trancy ballads, like “Alive” and “Fear Nothing”, this album establishes Sue as a bonafide pop star. It’s just too bad that the US market doesn’t see the merit in the work of this amazing R&B star.
8. Grace Potter - Midnight
It’s strange to think that 10 years before the release of this album, Grace Potter was just a roots-rock singer from New England trying to make it big with her backing band the Nocturnals. Since then, she’s released a number of hits in the country rock world including “Paris (Ooh La La)” and “Never Go Back”. With this album, however, she takes her first step into the spotlight as a solo artist, and to the dismay of the purists, it’s a little bit poppier.
What makes this album so great though is how unlike 1989 it is in its attempts to push a country star into the pop spotlight. While Swift chose to abandon her country roots almost entirely in exchange for dance pop stardom, Potter chooses to take the styles that brought her into the spotlight and put a little bit more shimmer on them. Every single song prominently features acoustic instruments, especially the guitars (which is more than Swift can say), and there are songs that would work well on the dance floor and at the bar. In this way, Potter demonstrates true versatility as a pop artist, and if the purists can’t get on board, then they are missing out on a great pop outing from a phenomenal songwriter.
7. Melody Gardot - Currency of Man
It’s quite a shame that this amazing jazz singer-songwriter flew under my radar until this year, especially since she’s from my hometown of Philadelphia. Her story in itself is quite remarkable: growing up as a piano prodigy only to suffer injuries in a car accident that made her sensitive to loud music. Her last three albums have garnered great acclaim from critics, and most current two (including this one) have been nominated for the Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical Grammy, which as an audio engineer in training, peaked my interest from the start.
The smoothness that just oozes from this album easily masks the ugly underbelly that lines the lyrical themes throughout the work. The opening track, “It Gonna Come”, details the hardships of poverty in America, which makes you almost feel guilty about getting down to it. Yet every song on this album emits this warmth, and I have to give credit to the engineers for making her vocals mix so well with the instrumentation. If you want to listen to something that soothes you musically and challenges you lyrically, definitely check this album out.
6. Grimes - Art Angels
While Visions gave the mainstream listening audience a taste of her pop eccentricity, Art Angels takes that eccentricity to a place that makes this album her most accessible, and yet most weird, to date. From the get-go, Grimes clearly demonstrates that this is not your typical pop album, starting with an introduction (aptly titled “laughing and not being normal”) that’s part trance/part cantata, featuring purity in her vocals that had only been hinted at with her previous summer single “Go” and the demo for “Realiti”.
From there, Grimes takes us on a journey through what in her mind constitutes “pop eccentricity”, from industrial drum beats and cheerleader style calls on “Kill v. Maim” to pumping dance beats and feminist musings with Janelle Monae on “Venus Fly”. She even includes a remix of “Realiti” for the fans who fell in love with the her discarded rarity. With tighter song structure and production for the mainstream crowd, and plenty of textural and lyrical weirdness for her die hard fans, Grimes successfully pulls off one of the rarest of “win-wins” in the music business. And shows off a kick ass album to boot.
5. JANK - Awkward Pop Songs
As I mentioned earlier, you will not find this release on Allmusic, or on any music streaming/purchasing service outside of Bandcamp at this point. Most likely, if you live outside of the Philadelphia area or aren’t following the indie punk/emo scene right now, you probably haven’t heard of these guys. But if you pine for the days of energetic pop punk, emotional lyrics, math rock intricacies, and general tom-foolery, you should check out this album.
Even if you aren’t particularly a fan of emo, Matt Diamond, the songwriter extraordinaire behind this project, has dipped his hands into numerous genres over the years, and he brings a strong backbone of pop sensibility. This album is filled with so many memorable lines and melodies, from the “Oh Caitlyn you’re nothing/Oh Caitlyn, you’re something” from “Caitlyn”, or the “I kinda feel a bit salty” from “Wut I Liek Abt U”, this album will have you cheering along after about 2 or 3 listens.
The album also features killer instrumental performances from drummer Sam Becht and bassist Ruben Anree Polo (so happy Diamond finally brought a bassist into a project). Songs drift into so many different instrumental territories within themselves, with “Wut I Liek Abt U” sounding almost like 3 different songs. Heck, “Loading Screen” is basically an 8-bit video game soundtrack used as an interlude. Not to mention, this is by far the best produced and engineered album Matt Diamond has ever put out, so mad props to their producer Jake Checkoway. All in all, JANK taps into the video-game loving, rebellious stoner side in all of us in Awkward Pop Songs, and in this day and age, that’s something I believe that’s a side that fans of any genre can get down to.
4. Jess Glynne - I Cry When I Laugh
I’mma be real, I knew this girl was gonna be a star. When I heard “Rather Be” last year, I first just thought it was a decent pop song. Then I listened more, and I realized that Jess Glynne has one of the most soulful voices to come out of Britain. And unlike Adele and Sam Smith, she doesn’t have to sing depressing shit to stay relevant.
I Cry When I Laugh is kind of a deceiving title. Of all the songs on the album, only “Why Me” and “Saddest Vanilla” truly express heartbreak. Most of the songs on this album, however, are incredibly optimistic and genuinely loving in nature. “You Can Find Me” finds her reassuring her lover how she will always be there for her. “Hold My Hand” finds her singing about diving into a relationship and experiencing physical intimacy for the first time with that person. “Take Me Home”, the most ballad-like she gets on the album, finds her pleading with her lover to help her heal from the brokenness of a previous relationship. These songs, and so many others, showcase a person who still believes in the power of love, regardless of how it may turn out. In an era of cynicism, this is album is just what the doctor ordered.
3. San Fermin - Jackrabbit
As a music student, I have to give mad props to Ellis Ludwig-Leone. Here’s a guy who graduates from Yale with a degree in music composition and decides he’s going to go into the Canadian wilderness and write an album. He gets all the musicians he knows in the city together, including the incredible vocal duo Lucius, and records a concept album depicting two lovers revealing their emotional baggage to each other in hopes of reaching some sort of conclusion about love. And, despite all odds, he not only reaches a classical audience, but an indie pop one as well. This, here, is the genius of their first album San Fermin in a nutshell.
Jackrabbit, however, reveals itself to be a completely different beast than its predecessor. To start off, this album is not an Ellis Ludwig-Leone album; this is a San Fermin album. The seven-piece group that has now become the foundation of the band, including the amazing vocalists Allen Tate and Charlene Kaye, has a significant role in the arrangements on the album, although the initial compositions still come from Leone. Furthermore, while the album seems much more streamlined, thanks to his gracious decision to have less instrumental interludes, its lyrical themes seem to be much more disjunct. Frankly, I’ve been listening to this album since April of last year, and I still can’t quite figure out the concept behind it.
Yet this is the tightest San Fermin record they have released so far, and also the weirdest. “The Woods” starts it off clearly in weird territory, with vocal blips from vocalists Charlene Kaye accompanied by creepy piano block chords and haunting strings. However, from the moment the distorted saxophone comes in, you know this album is going to rock hard. And while it does rock hard on a number of tracks, like “Philosopher” and “Woman in Red”, it also shows off the band’s pop sensibilities on songs like “Emily” and “Jackrabbit”. And yes, it still has ornately arranged baroque pop offerings like “Astronaut” and “Two Scenes” and two instrumental interludes. While some critics and fans may miss the beauty and polish of San Fermin, the eccentricity and ingenuity of Jackrabbit is sure to garner them fans who not only have fallen in love with them as a live touring act, but also those who want an album they can listen to without having to put their intellectual caps on .
2. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
I think I will always remember the day this album dropped. It was a little past midnight, and I was doing what I usually do before I go to bed these days: check the BlinkFeed app on my phone to see if there are any interesting music news stories that have broken. As usual, I approached it with an attitude of skepticism, as the sites used by the app tend to have pretty menial news offerings. But then I saw it: Kendrick had dropped his album a whole week early. I was so excited I even woke up my roommate just to say “Kendrick’s album dropped! Kendrick’s album dropped!!”
While I didn’t get a chance to listen to it until later that afternoon, from the moment the needle sample dropped on “Wesley’s Theory” to the moment Kendrick yelled “Pac! PAC!” on “Mortal Man”, I felt like I was experiencing a unique moment in history. I even mentioned to that same roommate later on in the day how we must’ve felt how music listeners felt the day albums like OK Computer came out. I had experienced what most music fans only dreamed of: an instant classic.
To Pimp A Butterfly excels in almost all the right places. The instrumentals on this album are all incredible, with a legendary lineup of session musicians including Thundercat, Terrence Howard, and Robert Glasper. The amount of flows that Kendrick uses on the album, from his straight-up flow on songs like “How Much a Dollar Cost?” to his hood flow on “Hood Politics”, Kendrick brings to life an incredible cast of characters Last, but certainly not least, the lyrical content on this album is unsurmountable; even my no. 1 pick can’t beat it. From themes of disillusionment with fame to searching for God and racial discrimination, Lamar takes us on a journey of a man searching for himself in a world that tries to define him by his success as an artist and the color of his skin. Even if you think the album has become overrated, or the political messages don’t quite jive with you, I would encourage you to appreciate the album as a moving piece of art, especially if you want to move while you’re being moved.
1. Hiatus Kaiyote - Choose Your Weapon
Like I said earlier, I was quite confident that nothing was going to beat out To Pimp a Butterfly. It was an instant classic! Not only that, but it was ear candy, and to an audio engineer, this is golden. But there’s one kind of album that has the potential to beat an instant classic in my book, and that is the slow-burner.
The slow-burner doesn’t hit you entirely at first. It gets you hooked on a couple of songs, and the others are interesting enough to keep you listening. But then you dive into the album, and with every new listen, a new song stands out from the rest. Soon, you realize every song on the album is amazing, and the journey you’ve taken to discover this leaves a mark on you. So many of my favorite albums have done this (at some point, I might dedicate a post to this topic), and I’m happy to say that Choose Your Weapon is a new addition to this list.
One cannot talk about the genius of this album without talking about the genius of “Molasses”. This song demonstrates one of the most impressive expressions of musicianship I have ever seen; players so in sync with each other they can pull off some of the most incredible musical moments all in one song. Not only that, but the engineering of the song further helps to showcase the complexity of the song, helping it to go from bouncing and chill to sporadic and chaotic. All the while, the lyrics entail the emotional turmoil of a break up, from the cynical “It might not get any better” to the eventual realization that “It could be the point of letting it go”. And the song doesn’t even make you feel depressed; it makes you want to dance!
So many of these songs have this level of complexity to them, from the hyperness yet zen of “By Fire”, to the mysterious jungle boogie of “The Lung”, and even the emotional nostalgia groove of “Fingerprints”. The band blends elements of jazz, funk, hip-hop, and even electronic music, in the case of “Atari”, to create songs that truly encompass every possible form of a groove. The eclecticism of this truly versatile group, combined with their ability to make you feel good and get down no matter how you are feeling and borderline perfect songwriting, helps to define what makes this album no. 1 in my opinion.