21 Dec Top Albums of the Year 2015: Staff Picks
No one seems to be able to stop talking about Kendrick Lamar this year, and while we are no different from the rest in that regard, we’ve naturally made the effort, as usual, to put together an Albums of the Year list that is typically unconventional and probably features quite a few characters you won’t see elsewhere. Read on:
Vivian Hua – dance, indie, pop, psychedelic, electronic, soul
Jason Simpson – pop, soul, electronic, ambient
Ian King – electronic, ambient, instrumental, pop
Judy Nelson – dance, electronic, indie, pop, hip-hop
Troy Micheau – metal, electronic, experimental, ambient, indie
(In no particular order)
Holly Herndon – Platform (4AD / RVNG Intl.)
An early-in-the-year addition I nearly forgot about, Holly Herndon’s Platform was the first record of 2015 I distinctly remember being wowed by. And not just by the music, either; the confidence Herndon exuded extended to the visual world in a notable and exciting way, which made her stand out as not just a female electronic musician, but as an all-around auteur.
Gardens & Villa – Music for Dogs (Secretly Canadian)
The third full-length from Gardens & Villa has the band exploring post-punk and Brian Eno worlds in ways that pull them away from their indie rock roots – but playful swirling psychedelia and throwback grinders abound, with flirtatious, jumpy piano lines serving as a fine, fine replacement bed for the flutes that were previously front-and-center.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg Entertainment)
I don’t feel like I need to say much more about this record other than: I wasn’t impressed at first. I’ve since changed my foolish ways, though.
Pure Bathing Culture – Pray For Rain (Partisan Records)
More of the same or similar as usual, but it’s more of the same of the good-good.
The Weeknd – Beauty Behind The Madness (Republic Records)
Though I admittedly hate that he’s managed to hoodwink young girls and the blissfully ignorant public with his naughty bad man ways (cue images of teenage girls naively singing about cocaine numbing their faces and tacitly accepting his emotional lady-abuse), let’s face it: The Weeknd has some of the best godamn songs of the year, and he bitch-slapped the entire world with them. Yes, they’re extremely played out – but in the grand scheme of things, they’re actually not that played out, considering the life cycle of Adele’s “Hello” has been way more exhaustive already. Señor Le Weeknd does lose some points for no longer offering his music for free, though, since such generosity is what led to his empire being built in the first place – but my roommates and I can’t stop singing his songs forever-over.
LA Priest – Inji (Domino Records)
I was raving about this record all year, and admittedly forgot it when I was first compiling my Top Five list. My mistake. Smooth, sexy, sultry, silly, and seductive, this debut comes from a man who sounds seasoned as all hell. Read my full review of Inji and get what you’re missing, stat!
KISSES – Rest in Paradise (Hit City U.S.A.)
Ahhh, KISSES: one of those projects that constantly surprises me with how much they compel me. Just like the name of the project, there’s nothing glaringly fancy or mind-blowing about the LA-based male-female duo; their name is simplistic, their song titles often consist of only one word, and their vibe is generally just sunny-groovy. Yet if repeat listenability is a key factor to making my top albums lists, it’s that which ensures that KISSES always rank on my year-end lists. Note also, our support of their recent signing to Hit City U.S.A.!
Shy Girls – 4WZ Mixtape (Self-Released)
After a promising debut 2014 release of their EP,Timeshare, Dan Vidmar of Shy Girls decided to collaborate with a whole slew of producers and rappers, such as Rome Fortune and Junglepussy, to create a 13-track mixtape that is just straight-up bonkers in how solid it is. A complete grower, 4WZ started as an album which had a handful of songs I really liked and lodged into my mind so deep that I can listen to it a few times a week without getting bored. It’s versatile, suitable for daytime walks through metro stations just as much as it is for nighttime lounging or campfire sits — and what’s more: it’s free!
Natasha Kmeto – Inevitable (Dropping Gems)
Natasha Kmeto has long been a Northwest baller babe, but in 2015, she comes out roaring like fucking tigress. Yowza. The release of Inevitable coincides with Kmeto taking the world by storm in ways she never has before: collaborating and touring extensively with TV on the Radio, screaming to the world loud and proud that she is gay, and perhaps most importantly, one-upping herself on her live show game like a motherfucker. Pardon my language. Something about this record just feels strong without being aggressive, emotional without being mad cheesy. The combination makes me sassy. Seriously, though: Kmeto is one to watch. If you’re not already doing so, start watching.
Stealing Sheep – Not Real (Heavenly Recordings)
Liverpool’s Stealing Sheep are a trio of women who have aroused my interest ever since their 2012 full-length, Into The Diamond Sun. What started as a psychedelic foray into woodsy witchiness has, in 2015, changed markedly. Thematically, the band still utilizes subconscious states and dreams as inspiration, but musically, have expanded into more electronic realms by stripping away some of their folksy roots and adding in a whole lot more dance. They’ve also upped their production design like whoa, and their art direction is exemplary.
 M.E.S.H. – Piteous Gate
 Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
 Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, Girl (Sacred Bones Records)
 Arca – Mutant (Mute Records)
 Blind Lovejoy – Laughing Horse
Laughing Horse is the debut cassette from Portland’s Blind Lovejoy, 5 years in the making. It is the best representation of my favorite aspects of Portland’s diverse music scene.
Laughing Horse is a labor of love, being entirely self-recorded and mixed by the band. Lacking any complex audio gear, the band would, at times, record each instrumental track individually, and build the songs back, layer by layer. It’s not that unconventional of an approach; it can just be a real pain. It is to BL’s credit that Laughing Horse manages to capture their organic energy beautifully, for the rest of the world to see and hear what goes on in living rooms, basements, and small clubs in the fair city.
My favorite thing about Laughing Horse is also the most upsetting and troubling thing about this slight tape. Absolutely none of the first batch of Blind Lovejoy’s material I feel in love with is on here. I’d been watching Noah Johanson and Cayla Davis perform those songs live for years as a duo, switching instruments and kicking ass! Blind Lovejoy have become an entirely new beast with the introduction of Laura Daeling’s fierce bass pummel, which has brought everything together, priming BL to bring their thunderous, democratic, hilarious, heartfelt rock ‘n roll to the rest of the world.
Portland has changed drastically in the 5 years I’ve been here. It is trying desperately to become this silicon mirage of itself, but the same funky, weird, queer, eccentric heart and soul shines behind the cloud coverage as ever before, and we’ve got to shout it out when we find it!
 Erykah Badu – But You Cain’t Use My Phone Mixtape
I’ve got a confession: for someone who makes their living writing about pop culture, I’m relatively new to the world of pop music. It turns out that pop music and culture is infinitely more fun when you’re engaged with it — when you’re in on the joke, basically.
With Erykah Badu’s trappy remix of Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling”, the But You Cain’t Use My Phone mixtape felt like one of the year’s last big, anticipated albums, dropped with little ceremony over Thanksgiving weekend. Phoned-in performances by Andre 3000 and Drake (quite literally), along with the always amazing Ms. Badu made this 35 minutes of pure silken heaven. The But You Cain’t Use My Phone Mixtape is this year’s Mimetic Album of the Year, that also sounds bloody fantastic.
 Nicole Dollangager – Natural Born Losers (Eerie Organization)
There was a lot of talk about women in the arts in 2015: about breakdowns of the pay discrepancies in Hollywood, the shortage of women directors, the revelation that ‘female’ is not a musical genre, and the publishing of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by the inimitable Jessica Hopper (a fact that is both depressing and inspiring).
It all boils down to representation, really. The more voices we hear, from every corner of the art world, the more people are able to say “Oh, that sounds like me!” and relate – or, for the people who have never heard that voice, to be able to understand where it’s coming from a little bit better. And while it’s nothing new to make a dark, disturbing, emotive record, it’s all about the contrasts with Canada’s Nicole Dollangager. The cover is a pastel goth daydream, until it comes to the black metal font and gimp mask. Sonically, Nicole Dollanganger is like cotton candy and unicorns and perfume and your first kiss, freebased and injected into your endocrine gland.
Her subject matter is darker than a hundred Burzum and Prurient records; she kills and stuffs an angel in the first thirty seconds of the album, while eroticizing a cop’s black vinyl glove and endless romantic afternoons drinking tall boys on the front porch. Natural Born Losers proves you can be both pretty and pretty disturbing, which is a lesson everybody can gain from.
 Floating Points – Elaenia (Eglo Records)
The devils are in the details when it comes to electronic music. It’s all too easy to drop some premade loops and presets onto the arrangement view and pretend you’re a producer. Unfortunately, that music says nothing to nobody.
For electronic music to really shine, each detail must be polished and precisely placed. That’s part of what makes Sam Shepherd’s rinkety dink R&B and disembodied soul so outstanding. He’s truly making timeless, classic music that also couldn’t have been made at any other time. And in an era where it seems that most producers are crafting either lumpen, deformed 4/4 Techno or throwing hyperreal trap shuriken, Elaenia feels like an elevation, a celebration, and a levitation of the breakbeat. Shepherd’s beats are lighter than styrofoam; you could float to the moon on his quickshuffling snares. Here’s hoping for more rhythmic complexity, in 2016, with Floating Points leading the way.
 Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly (Top Dawg Entertainment)
2015 has been the year of social justice, to put it mildly. And although Kendrick Lamar’s masterful To Pimp A Butterfly came out in the first quarter of 2015, and there has been plenty of incredible hip-hop since then, TPAB is a battle cry, a party record, and a picture window into the life of a very talented young black rapper.
To Pimp A Butterfly is also a great example of an exceptional live hip-hop band, bringing fresh, funky, crazy grooves to really get the party lifted, with a live jazz breakbeat orchestra coming from some of the underground’s finest, like Thundercat, George Clinton, Snoop Dogg, to name a few.
Kendrick Lamar reminds us of the difference between #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter. Of course all lives matter, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about. Lamar is here to tell us of his experience: what it is to come up as a young black man in the U.S. Until every single human walking on this Earth is perceived as HUMAN, travesties like what happened in Ferguson will continue to happen. Kendrick’s here to let us know how it is, with wicked wordplay and crazy tight, sharp beats. So here’s to learning how to listen, and here’s to ambitious live hip-hop!
(In no particular order)
Esmerine – Lost Voices (Constellation Records)
Godspeed You! Black Emperor weren’t the only instrumental ensemble from Montreal to release a killer record this year.
Crown Larks – Blood Dancer (Spacelung / Landbreathing)
Sinewy avant-garde psychedelic rock with a tasteful amount of saxophone skronk thrown in, for good measure.
Lakker – Tundra (R&S Records)
Ian McDonnell and Dara Smith deconstruct techno in a way that sounds both ancient and alien.
Benoit Pioulard – Sonnet (Kranky Records)
2015 has been a richly productive year for Thomas Meluch, including his recently released Noyaux EP and this, his fifth (depending on how you’re counting) full-length.
Weed – Running Back (Lefse Records)
Careening grunge-gaze sludge-pop perfect for jumping up and down and throwing stuff, if that’s your thing.
 Moonsocket – Eurydice (Noyes Records)
Chris Thompson of Eric’s Trip (and also The Memories Attack) first put out an album as Moonsocket in 1997, with Take the Mountain. Eighteen years later, Thompson has revived the name and released Eurydice, a deeply touching and fragile collection of songs about personal loss and living in its wake. The record’s eleven brief songs seem to last only as long as Thompson can bear to play them, and the recordings feel so close, like Elliott Smith’s first solo albums, that you want to reach over and offer a hug.
 Lilacs & Champagne – Midnight Features Vol. 2: Made Flesh (Temporary Residence Ltd.)
The one-of-a-few-side-projects pairing of Alex Hall and Emil Amos (both founding members of Grails) outdid themselves with this year’s Midnight Features Vol. 2: Made Flesh. Fueled by an ongoing international used record store treasure hunt, Lilacs & Champagne have nearly perfected their vintage, smoky instrumental psych hip-hop soundtrack vibe on tracks like “Roses & Kisses”, “Case Closed!”, and “Euro Blow”.
 Sun Breaks – Sun Breaks EP (Sailor’s Rest)
One of the most original-sounding indie pop records this year was the very under-heralded debut by two Seattle music scene mainstays, John Atkins (764-Hero, Magic Magicians) and James van Leuven (Plan B). The Sun Breaks EP inverts the indie diagram in subtle ways, letting the bass take the lead while the guitars add twisting flourishes and the drums compete with tumbling kitchenware for the job of directing the rhythm. It’s a pleasure to hear Atkins’ distinct voice again, especially set against some of the most vibrant music he’s made in some time. Bonus points for the guest appearance by S’ Jenn Champion (FKA Jenn Ghetto).
 Girl Band – Holding Hands with Jamie (Rough Trade Records)
Speaking of, if there is any new soil to be tilled with the implements of guitar, bass, and drums, this Dublin noise rock band’s first full-length was one the best places to try to find it in 2015. The guitars sound like malfunctioning industrial equipment, vocalist Dara Kiely sounds possessed whether he’s screaming about a daughter named Paul or moaning about Nutella, and everyone attacks their instrument percussively, not just the drummer. Girl Band are on their own path, and Holding Hands with Jamie is the kind of beginning that will allow them to go wherever they want to next.
 Inventions – Maze of Woods (Temporary Residence Ltd.)
Yes, Inventions’ self-titled debut was my number one pick last year. If Maze of Woods had been a mere sequel, or an Amnesiac to Inventions’ Kid A, it might have registered lower, but it is neither of those things. Maze of Woods is more playful and beat-driven, willing to take risks rather than relying entirely on the duo’s established strengths, and the results are no less stunning than its predecessor. At this rate, Matthew Cooper and Mark Smith can release an album every year, and it will always be the best one.
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 Susanne Sundfør – Ten Love Songs (Sonnet Sound Limited)
The initial draw for this record was the energetic single “Memorial”, but as the record grew on me, it became apparent that Susanne Sundfør is a modern, Norwegian version of Pat Benatar. This record is a soaring, majestic effort for the songwriter, who has been putting out albums in Scandinavia since 2007.
 Young Fathers – White Men are Black Too (Ninja Tune)
This album was an end of year discovery, a recommendation from a friend with good taste. It’s exceptionally interesting hip-hop, in a year full of great hip-hop. Not often do you find an Edinburgh-based hip-hop act, by the way. Recommended highly.
 Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp (Merge Records)
This is a beautiful, guitar-heavy record with an intense, haunting quality. “Breathless,” “Blue” and “Air” are stunners — but really, they are all great.
 Shamir – Ratchet (XL Recordings)
This phenom from Las Vegas stirred up quite the buzz with his dance party album debut. The thrill has not worn off, and has only intensified since seeing him live last month; the man knows how to put on a live show! Shamir has so much positive energy, it’s impossible not to get up and just MOVE. Highlights on this album include “Call it Off,” “Hot Mess,” and the undeniable single “On the Regular.”
 Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love (Sub Pop Records)
The much heralded return of this band did not disappoint. No Cities To Love has the same upbeat, punk rock glamour that we expect from this talented trio, but it also has the wisdom that only mature rock artists in the industry can provide. And of course, what would a SK record be without social commentary? The song “Price Tag” is especially poignant. Just plain fun, No Cities To Love shows that the band is not only still tight and in top form, but that they are still having fun together.
 Shy Girls – 4WZ (Self-Released)
A mixtape self-released by Dan Vidmar, better known as Shy Girls, this smooth electro-R&B album is utterly addictive. It has the perfect blend of dance jams, pop tunes (with appropriately cheesy lyrics) and slower, tripped-out tunes. There is an impressive array of guest stars, including Tei Shi, Junglepussy, and Antwon. If he keeps on this trajectory, Shy Girls is poised to give The Weeknd a run for his money.
 Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love (JagJaguwar)
The third album from this Portland based band keeps in line with their psychedelic pop sound, but is definitely their most accessible. The single “Multi-Love” has an extra-trippy video to accompany it, created by Vinyl Williams, and the song “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” is extra sleek. What I keep coming back to, though, is “The World is Crowded”, which has that instantly classic, timeless sound.
 Tame Impala – Currents (Interscope Records)
You might not recognize them on this album, but this is the same Tame Impala you know and love, just with a bit more synthesizer. While their previous albums seemed influenced by the ’60s and ’70s, Currents is all ’80s. The more I listen to it, the more there is to enjoy. “Let it Happen” is a great opener, but my current favorites are “The Moment” and “The Less I Know The Better.”
(In no particular order)
No, Kendrick is not on this list. He is on every other list, and he absolutely deserves it. Dude made the best album of the year, and we should all accept that as gospel truth. Now, moving on to other wonderful things. These are my favorite records of 2015 that were not made by Kendrick Lamar.
Suzanne Kraft – Talk From Home (Melody As Truth)
Melody As Truth was definitely my favorite label discovery of the year, and this warm blanket of a record was the release I jammed most frequently. In fact, I probably listened to this more than any other single album in 2015. Cozy and uplifting without pandering, Talk From Home distilled the most genuinely comforting elements of New Age music into a completely unassuming masterpiece.
Cio D’or- All in All (Semantica Records)
Best use of reverb on any record, maybe ever. Ultra-chromatic techno meticulously produced for the edge of space and time. When paired with a decent set of headphones, this record becomes an elegant spaceship.
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe and Ariel Kalma – We Know Each Other Somehow (RVNG Intl.)
This is my favorite record of the year by far. Synthesizers, saxophones and Robert Lowe’s otherworldly moans lead the way through this set of heart-opening slow burners that isn’t afraid to explore dark corners, in search of knowing. Revelatory stuff here.
Napalm Death – Apex Predator – Easy Meat (Century Media Records)
These fucking guys have to be almost 60 goddamn years old, and they still rule. No irony here. I love this band. And somehow this record is one of the most inventive of their career. They’ve dabbled in the industrial realms before but never have their experiments worked so seamlessly with the savage rhythms and guttural noise for which they are generally known. And all that without a hint of pretense. This is definitely my favorite of the band’s latter day releases.
Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness (Domino Records)
This record is a bit of a strange one for me, as I’ve never really been a fan of Holter’s music before this, and I don’t generally reach for bookish indie pop – well, ever. But Have You in My Wilderness is one of the most beautiful albums I’ve heard all year. The fact that I still loved it after giving it a break for a few weeks secured its place on this here list.