Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Top 20 Albums of 2015

As I walk to work, coffee in hand, I am not thinking of what I need to get accomplished that day. I am not thinking about my plans for after work. Nor am I thinking about what I will have for lunch (that one's easy. Peanut butter and honey... errday).

I am thinking, "Which Beach House album was better this year? Is False's maelstrom of Black Metal better than the jazz bass stylings of Thundercat? Did Death Grips release an album this year?"

The answer to all of these questions are answered below.

Honorable Mention:

I considered expanding my top 20 to a top 25 to include these albums, but you gotta have rules, man! Otherwise what separates us from the animals?! Stop thinking crazy, Kyle!

Regardless, these albums are great and deserve some recognition.

Viet Cong - Viet Cong: Almost convinces me that Women are still a band.

Björk - Vulnicura: I wouldn't be surprised if this album grows on me more over the years. An album about divorce by Björk is perhaps too much for me to take. One thing is for certain, "Stonemilker" might be the greatest song Björk has ever written.

Disasterpeace - It Follows: This soundtrack is one of the greatest soundtracks I've ever heard. It stands really well on its own without the movie, too. I listened to this thing for months before (finally) seeing the (excellent) movie.

Horrendous - Anareta: Another album that I think will grow on me in time, this is death metal with a ton of catchy riffs and fun moments.

D'Angelo and the Vanguard - Black Messiah: I considered putting this album at #9 on my year end list, but it technically came out in 2014, so I couldn't bring myself to do it. This album sounds like it's from another decade, but feels so now. It's one of the freshest albums I heard all year.

Here we gooooo

20. Melechesh - Enki

Not only do Melechesh bring an awesome Middle Eastern sound to their brand of black metal, but their songs are incredibly catchy, fist-pumping anthems. There is no doubt in my mind that this album would be higher in my list if the album art weren't off-center. IT DRIVES ME CRAZY.

19. Krallice - Ygg Huur

You want impenetrable black metal that will make even die hard black metal fans scratch their heads? I present to you Krallice's most recent offering. As chaotic and random this album seems, I found myself anticipating certain passages as if they were the next logical progression of sounds from what came before. This band is operating on another level, producing music equally challenging and headbanging. 

If you had told me that Mgła was going to release an album this year, and that it would only reach my #18 spot, I wouldn't have believed you. Perhaps it speaks to the strength of the rest of the albums on this list that the almighty Mgła has fallen so low? Or maybe the the superb I, II, V, and VI couldn't make up for the weakness of tracks III and IV? Regardless, Mgła's worst album is better than most music, so don't let my lackluster review hold you back.

17. Death Grips - Jenny Death

Yes, I am counting this as a separate album from niggas on the moon. You can call The Powers That B a double album all you want, but I think releasing the two discs 6 months apart with completely different sounds warrants its own spot on my list. This album is almost a return to their rock-sampling roots on Ex-Military. It's got one of their best songs in "On GP", but my favorite is hand down "Pss Pss". This song is absolutely bonkers. "Pss Pss Pss" is probably their most genius hook since "it goes it goes it goes it goes YUH".

16. Beach House - Depression Cherry

If you're into buying vinyl, BUY THIS RECORD. The record sleeve is covered in velvet. VELVET dammit. I am baffled that this is the first time Beach House has encased their musical magic in such a seductive fabric. Just holding this record is the perfect accompaniment for the lush sounds held within. The lead-off single for the album, "Sparks", is simultaneously the most exciting and most disappointing thing Beach House have ever released. Its noisy guitars and repetitive, almost tinny vocal samples create an atmosphere that is so unique and so "Beach House" at the same time. But it's the only song on this album, and their entire discography, that sounds even remotely like this. The song pokes fun at us, as if to say, "We could go full on Cocteau Twins if we wanted to. But we don't want to. #sorrynotsorry." Please Beach House. Please release a Cocteau Twins album. 

Pale Chalice really have a way of writing simple black metal songs with such emotional gravitas. This album is one song after another of songs with an extra "something" that I find difficult to place my finger on. The vocalist is pretty great too. However, perhaps the best part about this album is this picture inside the record sleeve:
So metal.

 14. Tame Impala - Currents

I just started listening to this album in earnest this week. I knew I needed to give it a fair listen and I knew it was going to be great, but other things always got in the way. Well, there is a definite benefit for an album to be heard the week I am finalizing my list. This thing is rocking my world right now. It climbs higher in my list nearly every time I hear it. As good as this album is, nothing comes close to the pop masterpiece of "The Less I Know the Better". This song is unfuckwithable. The bass line is incredible, the synths are so perfectly textured, and the part where he breaks it down and sings "Oh my love..." is just so heart-wrenchingly incredible. The music video also takes the spot of my favorite of the year (linked above). It took 3 albums, but Tame Impala finally won me over.

It's hard for me to begin talking about this album. Do I focus on the technical abilities of Stephen Bruner? Because he absolutely crushes it on this album. Or maybe I can point out that the songwriting on this album is miles above any of Thundercat's previous output. It might be best to focus on the emotional impact his music had on me when I saw him live. Every song he played was at least twice the length on record due to lengthy solos. But his solos were so full of emotion and character that it colored his music with a new life that I hadn't originally noticed on this album. I don't have any special connection or association with Austin Peralta, but Stephen's tribute to him during that show was incredibly moving. Instead of gushing, I think I'll just say "This album is too short" and leave it at that. 

12. Beach House - Thank Your Lucky Stars

I fulfilled a life goal and saw Beach House live this year. It was awesome; they are somehow able to perfectly translate their sound to a live setting. It was perhaps the warmest sounding concert I've ever been to. One thing that did not happen was they did not play any songs from their then-as-yet-to-be-released Thank Your Lucky Stars. I can only imagine how hard their heads would have banged when playing "One Thing" or "Elegy to the Void". This album cements Beach House as a band completely on top of their game. I mean, for christ's sake, they essentially titled this album "You're Welcome". They are too fucking cool.

11. False - Untitled

While we're speaking about incredible live performances, False made me experience something I have never felt before at a concert. There I was, listening to one of my favorite bands-of-the-moment, sweating my ass off in the putrid, stagnant air in Black Barbie. It was July in Houston, and the venue has no A/C or ventilation of any kind. As the first song barrels through its nearly 15 minute duration I begin to enter an almost trance-like state. There are only 15 people in the crowd, but it feels like it is just me standing in the middle of the room, mere feet way from the snarling lead singer. She looks directly at me, and it felt like she was looking into me. I don't know how long this lasts, but I swear to you I did not feel like I was me. I felt like I was the concert. Before I knew it, the concert was over. I don't know how many songs they played, or for how long. My best guess is two 15-minute songs, but I can't be certain. It sounds pretty stupid, I realize, and I've never really done any drugs, but if I had to guess, I would say that I was experiencing ego-loss. I bring this up mostly because False's lyrics at times focus on the destruction of self; not in a suicidal way, but in a humbling, "you are a human, and no more special than those you share this world with" sort of way. The concert was a truly eye-opening experience that made me feel less like myself and more like a part of the music I was listening to. It's something I will never forget.

It also could have been heat stroke.

10. FKA Twigs - M3LL155X

Twigs garners more and more respect every time she releases music. With EP2, I proclaimed that Twigs' vocals fit nicely within Arca's music, but that Arca completely stole the show. Since then, Twigs keeps getting better and better and Arca worse and worse. Twigs shall not be fucked with, son. As if there was any doubt, she released a 16-minute music video featuring insane visuals and hands down the greatest dance routine I've seen since JT's "My Love". This short album frames the excellent centerpiece "In Time" perfectly, and gets me so excited for what's next in her already impressive career.

9. Elder - Lore

I want you to take a moment and ask yourself the following question: "Do I like metal?" If the answer is yes, listen to this album immediately. If the answer is no, I want you to ask yourself a follow-up question: "Why not?" If you are of the opinion that metal is an unartistic onslaught of harsh noise, or immature in its lyrics about gore, death, and satan, or maybe you just can't get past screaming vocals, please take a moment and listen to Elder so each of your opinions about metal can be invalidated. This album is psychedelic, heavy, fun, and beautiful. Lore is the new gateway drug into a genre so full of satisfying diversity that its a shame more people don't venture into its murky waters. Give in to the metal. It is calling to you.

8. Deafheaven - New Bermuda

Speaking of gateway drugs into metal, Deafheaven proved that they are (or should be) the biggest metal band going right now. Memes aside, Sunbather was a statement album, bringing Deafheaven to the forefront of hipsters' minds and bringing new fans into a genre that intimidated many. With that level of exposure comes pressure to reproduce the same magic on the follow up, and I believe Deafheaven have shattered my admittedly low expectations. New Bermuda exhibits a nice progression from Sunbather, with faster riffs and throaty vocals that set a different tone for this record. I had the pleasure of seeing this band perform every song on this album live, and while the only person on stage who was killing it was Clarke, the audience was enraptured. Deafheaven may not make the most technically proficient metal, but the effect they have on their listeners is undeniable. Emotions ran all over the place, spilling from one person to the next. That same exuberant energy can also be felt when you listen to the song above alone in your room. It's a truly special quality that not many bands are able to possess.

7. Sulphur Aeon - Gateway to the Antisphere

Motherfuckin C'thulu. A giant squid-dragon-god that sleeps deep below the ocean floor waiting for the right time to rise up to destroy the world and send its inhabitants into madness. Arguably the most heavy metal thing aside from this dog:
C'thulu is the primary focus of Sulphur Aeon's music. There is a heavy foreboding atmosphere from the very outset of this album, as a voice whispers incantations from another dimension, calling for The Great Old One to rise. Gimmicks aside (and what metal band doesn't have gimmicks?) the song writing and riffage on this album is insane. It is an onslaught of heavy. The guitar tones are so perfect for the subject matter: epic, dark, and massive. I like to imagine this band standing on a grey cliff, blasting their hymnals toward a crashing black ocean. If you listen to the song above and your head stands still, then what the hell is wrong with your neck?

6. Ava Luna - Infinite House

When I reviewed Ava Luna's Electric Balloon, I compared them to Talking Heads' sardonic punk energy. The band sounds like they don't give a fuck, but their song writing truly suggests otherwise. Seeing Ava Luna perform live just solidified everything I thought about this band. They showed such an electric irreverence that I found incredibly endearing. They play all of the wrong notes at the right time, and all the right ones to get you moving. Just listen to the contrast between the funky bass line and the stuttering plucked guitars in the song above. And those backing vocals at 0:56 ooze an infectious confidence. One moment I loved during their concert was when Carlos said "this is the first tour where each of us think that we might be a good band." I hope that added confidence carries over into their next release. This band continues to excite.

5. Napalm Death - Apex Predator - Easy Meat

As this album opens with a deep breath followed by a deep, inhuman sounding voice, you know you are in for quite a show. After the foreboding intro, the album explodes into the blistering pace that Napalm Death fans expect. And it is unrelenting. As brutal as this album is, the songs are catchy, and the tracklisting is punctuated with excellent changes of pace where Napalm Death include clearer vocals in perfect spots to prevent listener fatigue. Easily my favorite Napalm Death album, I really hope this signifies the direction the band will be taking in the future. That last statement is not typically one associated with a band 30 years into their career, which is definitely part of the charm to this album. That a band can still be crushing it this late into their career is beyond respectable. 

4. Oneohtrix Point Never - Garden of Delete

Daniel Lopatin never, ever, ceases to surprise. Last year I said that R Plus Seven sounded like an art gallery, walking through examining each work, trying to figure each one out. This album is more immediate, sounding like pop tunes from another dimension. The sounds on here are instantly familiar, but warped in such a way that is at times jarring, and others comfortable. The vocals are an excellent touch that I really enjoyed. Just as with other 0pn releases, this album leaves me thinking about it when I am not listening to it. There is no hope of singing along with these tracks, but the vocal melodies get stuck in my head regardless. I can't comprehend how a musician is able to so consistently produce excellent, exciting, and thought provoking work. Lopatin is truly the greatest musician going right now.

3. Carly Rae Jepsen - Emotion

Not just good, damn good. Carly Rae Jepsen has emerged as the best pop act of the moment, and if my projected trajectory for her is correct, we are witnessing the rise of the next Robyn. Jepsen rose to insane levels of fame with her song "Call Me Maybe", but Emotion exhibits a focus that is not typically seen on mainstream pop albums. It (criminally) did not do well on the charts, but much like Robyn, Jepsen has found a niche audience that will hopefully inspire her to continue to make music she wants to make, all with the pop sensibilities that made her a smash hit in 2012. The dancier songs on here put Daft Punk to shame, and the ballads are heartfelt and portray Carly as the girl-next-door who just wants a nice boyfriend. The feelings she conveys in each of these songs are universal, and the music behind her lyrics match the subject matter perfectly. It's not overly sweet, but it definitely has the cute charm that you expect from a pop singer who sings the word "really" 6 times in the album's leadoff single "I Really Like You". In fact, I'd say that that song perfectly encapsulates Carly's aesthetic. If the hook "I really really really really really really like you" does not resonate with you on some level, have you totally forgotten what teenage love is like? Do you not want to feel that way again? 30 year old Carly takes us all back to that innocent crystallization of what love can be. Give in and listen to the most underrated album of the year.

2. Joanna Newsom - Divers

Divers is Joanna's crowning achievement. It takes the orchestration from Ys combined with the concentrated song structures from Have One on Me to produce one of the most ambitious albums of the past 5 years. The instrumentation is so dense, but not overdone. Playful at times, orchestral the next. "Waltz of the 101st Lightborne" is perhaps the best example of this. Piano gives way to violin, which fades seamlessly into piccolo, transforming perfectly into country western guitar. A choir of Joannas sing over piano in the distance, and an accordion/violin duet responds in kind. This is all over the course of the final minute in the song. It's a compositional masterpiece. The sounds on this album are also so varied. The honky-tonk swing on "Goose Eggs" adds an incredible dimension to this album. "Things I Say" transforms from a simple piano folk ballad into a psychedelic atmosphere with backward vocals. This song leads into the greatest song Joanna has ever penned in "Divers". This song's lyrics not only resonate with me on a personal level, the chord changes are incredibly powerful. There is a longing to this song indicative of the song's themes, and a palpable sadness mixed with a twinge of hope. It is impossible explain how incredible these chords work together, you really must listen above. Joanna closes the album with "A Pin-Light Bent" and "Time, As a Symptom", two songs that so poetically put on record Joanna's philosophy of death, and therefore life. They are, in my opinion, words to live by. Stand brave, life liver. 

1. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly

I think I should get this out of the way early: To Pimp a Butterfly is the greatest album of the year. I am not stating my opinion. I am openly declaring that anyone who says otherwise is attempting to go against the grain and be different.  But deep in their hearts, they know it to be true. To Pimp a Butterfly is the greatest album of the year by a long shot. I will personally go so far as to say Kendrick has produced the greatest hip hop album of all time. 

Anyone who knows me knows that I always maintained that Kendrick was the most talented rapper going since 2011, but Section.80 and good kid M.A.A.D. city were just "okay." With the opening notes of To Pimp a Butterfly, everything I knew about Lamar went out the window. This album commands attention. It begins with a song that is funky, soulful, and exudes the feeling that you are about to hear an album by a guy who knows he is making the greatest album of the year. There is no question in Kendrick's mind or mine. This album is different.

After the tone is set, it goes into "For Free?" an interlude that is so much more than an "interlude." It exhibits exuberant jazz saxophone and off-kilter beat that is perfectly rapped on top of by Kendrick. How this man can rap so elegantly and with such fervor over such a crazy beat is astounding. After hearing this song for the first time, I was sold. This album is so unique, so soulful, so fucking perfect.

"King Kunta" continues the funk and takes it to a new level. It even proclaims "By the sound of the next pop, the funk shall be within you." And if it's not within you when the beat comes back, you are simply not listening. 

I don't know if I should go track by track and break down just why this album is so great. But every time I listen to the album, I think "no, this is my favorite song," for every damn song on here. 

There are many snippets of mini-songs or interludes that are as good or better than the songs they precede. Take for example the first minute of "Institutionalized". I challenge you to find a moment on any other album released this year that is more satisfying than singing "If I was the president, I'd pay my momma's rent" and launching into the excellent beat that persists throughout the remainder of the song. Similarly, the first 30 seconds of "Hood Politics" are incredible enough to form the basis of its own song, but work so well as an interlude before the heavier beat on the rest of the song. And as long as we're talking about beats, the beat on "Momma" is so warm, and the vocal samples complement the song incredibly well. 

To single out one song off this album is impossible, but thankfully Kendrick did that for me when he released "Alright" as a single. This song is an anthem for right now. It shows unwavering optimism in the face of a world that tries to break you down, repeating "We gon be alright" throughout. Speaking of optimism, being in a crowd of fans singing the lyrics to the song "i" in unison was such an uplifting experience. Thousands of people singing "I love myself" was such a cool moment. 

I can obviously gush about this album at length, so I guess I'll just stop and tell you to listen to this album. Even if you have heard this album, take a moment and listen again. 

This blog is obviously full of opinions. For christs sake, I have both Napalm Death and Carly Rae Jepsen on my top albums for the year. I think we all realize that these are just my opinions about what I was listening to this year. 

But Kendrick Lamar produced the album of the year. And that is a fact.

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