Best of 2015
Whether it was tear-stained confessionals by Björk and Sufjan Stevens, love-struck pop bangers from Carly Rae Jepsen, or Kendrick Lamar’s outpourings of politically-focused fury, our favourite albums of 2015 have run the gamut of human emotions. Enjoy the best of the year below.
The Top 10
- Speaking about his new album to Pitchfork, Sufjan Stevens stated, “This is not my art project; this is my life.” The moment ‘Death With Dignity’ ripples through the speakers, you’ve no choice but to believe him. Dealing with the loss of his mother to cancer, and picking over the details of their complex relationship, Carrie & Lowell is as personal a record as you’ll hear in 2015, and likely one of the most beautiful too. Peeling back the ornate arrangements and dense electronics of 2010’s Age Of Adz, here Stevens largely relies on fragile, acoustic guitar arpeggios and tremulous vocals to relay his grief, frustration and fear. The results are simultaneously totally spellbinding and utterly heartbreaking.
- Astounding as Medúlla, Volta and Biophilia are, the more high-concept Björk’s work becomes, the further removed we listeners can feel from the human being behind the artist. Perhaps that’s why this ninth album feels especially arresting. Dealing with the disintegration of her relationship with long-term partner Matthew Barney, Vulnicura sees Björk detailing her fears and sorrows with astonishing candour, while stripping back labyrinthine layers of instrumentation to a staple palette of clipped beats, minimalist electronics and heart-tugging strings. The result is an extraordinarily brave and beautiful record, and arguably her finest full-length release since 2001's Vespertine.
- As full-time beat-maker in The xx, Jamie Smith has long been content to lurk in the shadows behind his band-mates, while quietly pursuing personal production projects on the side. This solo debut-proper marks the moment that his musical hobby becomes a genuine limelight-stealer. Boasting both emotional depth and an impressively progressive sonic scope, In Colour seamlessly weaves a broad spectrum of styles, moods, samples and types of instrumentation into one brilliantly cohesive electronic album. From the Popcaan and Young Thug-starring ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times’ to Romy Madley-Croft co-write ‘Loud Places’, this is the soundtrack to the summer and beyond.
- Having spent the last few years sandwiching mix-athons with BFFs Four Tet and Caribou in-between his neuroscience PhD, you wouldn’t have thought Sam Shepherd had time to squeeze in an album. Such a vast array of vocations, however, informs the wonderfully idiosyncratic quality of his debut. Subtler than the rapturous acid wiggle of last year’s EP Nuits Sonoires, Elaenia foregrounds Shepherd's life-long love of classical and jazz music, as flawless improvisations embellish ethereal brass-arrangements and bubbling boogie-rhythms. Without settling on a fixed direction, Shepherd’s seven glorious “suites” gently hark back to the abstract utopias of his early excursions, resulting in a dreamy blend of orchestral lullabies and gentle dancefloor preludes.
- Inspired by “the chaos and ferocity” of performing Holy Fire’s heavier moments live, Foals headed straight to France with Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford to channel that energy into album number four. The upshot is, arguably, the five-piece’s most ambitious outing yet. From the raw aggression of the gothic-tinged title-track to A Knife In The Ocean’s dramatic climax of digital shrapnel and nose-diving guitars, What Went Down is a record bursting with bold musical statements. Of course, there are still traces here of the band that made Antidotes and Total Life Forever - the needling guitar lines that drive ‘Night Swimmers’ and the widescreen melancholia of ‘London Thunder’ - but, at its core, What Went Down is an album that prizes the physical above the cerebral.
- Take the royalties and exposure out of the picture, and you often find that a multi-platinum-selling single can prove a poisoned chalice for emerging artists. Just ask Carly Rae Jepsen, whose phenomenally-successful breakout hit ‘Call Me Maybe’ has overshadowed any material she’s produced since, largely because none of it has quite measured up to that unshakable earworm. Until now, that is, because Jepsen’s latest LP is so crammed full of killer hooks it makes selecting one standout track an utterly thankless task. Written in collaboration with Shellback, Sia, Greg Kurstin and Dev Hynes – and recorded with Haim-collaborator Ariel Rechtshaid – Emotion pairs voguish, 80s-style R&B production with timeless songwriting to quite magnificent effect. A pop classic in waiting.
- Dispelling the myth that braggadocio and solipsism are inseparable from major league rap, To Pimp A Butterfly finds Kendrick Lamar picking over personal struggles and societal injustice, to deliver an unflinching examination of what it means to be a black American in 2015. In the wake of the recent events in Ferguson and the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin (which is explicitly referenced on ‘The Blacker The Berry’), it’s no surprise that racial prejudice and police brutality loom large here. What might surprise the million-plus people who bought Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, is Lamar’s integration of esoteric musical influences to create ambitious, atypical arrangements, frequently rooted in free jazz and P-Funk. Combine these with the Compton rapper’s dexterous, deeply-inventive vocal delivery, and you have a dense yet richly-rewarding listen.
- Though not quite the albatross ‘Creep’ was for Radiohead, the phenomenal success of Lonerism-single ‘Elephant’ did bring Kevin Parker before a global audience, and made the name “Tame Impala” synonymous with swampy psych-rock. On his third LP, the Perth-born multi-instrumentalist delights in defying the expectations of his new-found fans. Replacing filthy guitar riffs with gauzy layers of spaced-out synth sounds – and largely driven by synthetic drum loops and soft-focus bass grooves – Currents offers a hallucinogen-laced take on funk, soul and disco. What’s most impressive here is how broad his songwriting range is, extending from the mind-expanding sprawl of ‘Let It Happen’ to sensual slow jams like ‘Cause I’m A Man’. Clearly, Parker is on the form of this life.
- Though born in the same year as Taylor Swift, 25-year-old Texan Leon Bridges could almost have been beamed in from a bygone era. Kitted out in sharp-tailoring and exuding old-fashioned, matinee idol charm, the former gospel singer effortlessly distills all the smooth soulfulness of Sam Cooke and Ben E King into his misty-eyed melodies. There’s some seriously strong songwriting on display here too, and the tracks are beautifully arranged, flecked with Hammond organ and punctuated by swing beats and the warm rumble of double bass. The result is a debut deferential enough to make rhythm and blues aficionados nostalgic, but with enough originality and verve to entice younger fans.
- Briefly Fleet Foxes’ (somewhat-apathetic) drummer, Josh Tillman returned to his solo career in 2012, rechristening himself “Father John Misty” simply because he enjoyed the bizarre juxtaposition of imagery. This irreverent approach to nomenclature gives you a fair insight into Tillman’s songwriting style too. Ranging from the string-driven, Mariachi horn-flecked Americana of ‘Chateau Lobby #4’ to the Harry Nilsson-style piano balladry of ‘Bored In The USA’, this latest collection excels in its pairing of absurdly beautiful melodies with hilariously deadpan lyrics. The result is a record that feels reassuringly “classic” and thrillingly original at the same time.