1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Watch out for this masterpiece. Three years after the release of good kid, which already had set the critics on fire, Kendrick Lamar is back with what seems to be one of this decade’s absolute essentials. Out in January, this one is like a Hip Hop What’s Going On, tainted with Jazz, and has literally crushed the competition for 2015. It’s been a few years since I started observing the world of music critics, but rarely have I seen such a hurricane of praise: Kendrick’s album is exulting, uncompromising, crude, and often cruel.
In the land of Butterfly’s America, the ground opens up like a thousand black hands, oppressed by the rich and the white, to swallow up the two into a grand musical apocalypse (‘Mortal Man’). I’m not going to lie: I needed a few listens for this disc. However, since the very first needle drop, I understood why it was important. The work is far from being Pop-like, and yet, its Grammy nomination was no surprise to me. The wild quality of this album shines through it, visible to the world’s eye, like a burning sun, a slap so tough it would make one drunk with pain.
2. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Just like the number 1 on this list of the best albums of 2015, Carrie & Lowell is sort of a consensus maker, even if, contrary to the former, its historical importance has yet to be determined. On the theme of his mother’s death (Carrie), with whom he seemed to have a rather complicated relationship, Sufjan weaves a majestically low-key work of art. Laying quiet guitar arpeggios upon sheets of icy synthesizers, the artist sets the scene for a bittersweet relationship, almost devoid of love.
Recalling a ghostly mother, mostly absent from his life, the poet perceives her image through a ‘black shroud’. For him, her presence is melancholic, scary, and oddly comforting at the same time (‘Should Have Known Better’). When his mother’s memory seems too far away to grasp, Sufjan embodies her boyfriend, Lowell, actor and winner of a love which was taken away from him (‘Fourth of July’). The texts become deeply freudian when the artist pictures their sweet intimacy, as if he were singing of a ceremony he was locked away from, still inhabited by an impostor father and a loveless mother.
3. Tame Impala – Currents
Three years after an indie rock gem called Lonerism, Tame Impala and their leader Kevis Parker are back with one of this year’s most anticipated album. Putting aside its predecessor’s distorted and compressed guitars, Currents is overflowing with synthetic sounds, with so much work put into it that it now sounds borderline artificial. The move is assertive as well as careful. Armed with the arrogance of a band following the trails of giants like the Beatles and Pink Floyd, Tame Impala has become indie rock’s biggest single factory, even if they can sometimes lean into self-caricature territory.
Kevin Parker is not the lonely apocalyptic dreamer he used to be anymore, but rather a 30 year old boy, naively dazed by the passing of time. Time which wraps him up and makes him grow, like a current would (liquid, electric, and musical). All in all, this album is one of today’s easiest and most pleasant listens. It’s like rediscovering the White Album or Wish You Were Here. It is charming without a doubt, but wouldn’t you like to be more shaken from time to time?
4. Julia Holter – Have You in My Wilderness
Like the first three artists on this list of the best albums of 2015, Julia Holter has already established herself as a successful musician. Alike the works of Kendrick Lamar and Tame Impala, her new album cements a career path which she started walking with her previous opus. Flying away from the suffocating Parisian nightlife of Loud City Song, we find her stranded on a rock, in the middle of a raging sea.
The light and pleasant wandering feeling of the last album has now turned into cold, cold confusion. The grey waves and blinding light are a metaphor for a chaotic love life, sad, and ferocious. ‘I can’t swim. It’s lucidity, so clear!’ she cries in ‘Sea Calls Me Home’. Like Lucette, stranded on her desert island, she prays for her lover’s return, arms stretched towards the sneering birds (‘Lucette Stranded on the Island’). Could they be the same as the ones chirping at Maxim’s windows in Loud City? And what about the music? Luminous, almost royal. Brian Wilson from the golden age, turned into a woman.
5. Grimes – Art Angels
Don’t judge it by its hideous cover, this disc is a joy to listen to. I’m not a great Grimes fan, but I admit I was surprised by this album’s cohesion. The tracks are happily boosted by guitar riffs reminiscent of Californian Surf Rock, pulling the listener like a giant wave across the Pacific Ocean, and eventually making them land on the shores of a Japanese fairy tale. The lyrics are evocative of shojos, which are mangas about teenage intimacy and romance (my knowledge on that matter goes no farther).
Claire Boucher/Grimes’ music can seem exuberant at times, but it is, in fact, strongly marked by a quiet melancholy, seemingly inspired by the shojo literature. Consider, for instance, the unspoken violence of a track like ‘Flesh without Blood’. In a nutshell, listen to it: Art Angels is an incredibly interesting disc.
6. Miguel – Wildheart
Before talking about Miguel, I’d like to write about people of colour. On this list of the best albums of 2015, there are only two black artists: Kendrick Lamar and Miguel (who is half latino). While I had to include Pimp a Butterfly, I had more trouble picking other artists in the Hip Hop / R&B categories. If we’ll agree on the fact that these categories are mostly dominated by black artists, I’d like to explain why they were such a tough choice for me this year. There are notably two albums which I very much liked and almost included: Drake’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late and Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06. The thing is, compared to Wildheart, I find that these two seriously lack a refined production work. In the case of Drake, it’s almost normal because If You’re Reading This is, technically, a mixtape and not an album. On the other hand, I think Vince Staples’ début is simply too ambitious in terms of length.
Miguel’s Wildheart, even if it maybe doesn’t have the heart and wild spirit of the other two, shines still by the intensity of its production work. Exploring a universe which crosses-over between Funk and Psychedelic Rock, Miguel almost offers a sequel to Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. And even if he doesn’t reach the lyrical heights of the latter, the mastery of his art as well as the freedom of his erotic poetry are to be held in respect. Quite an underrated artist.
7. Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass
One of my little favorites this one, and also the one I’ve listened to the most. An album that the press has however overlooked, maybe because its production is very traditionalist. Natalie Prass and her producer Matthe E. White grant you 40 Jazz-Pop minutes, coated with the most delicious string arrangements. According to AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine, these orchestrations are reminiscent of Folk/Country artists from the sixties, such as Dusty Springfield (Dusty in Memphis) and Harry Nilsson (‘Everybody’s Talkin’’).
Natalie Prass’ début is far from innovative, let alone groundbreaking, but it’s hard to forget, and (for me) even harder to live without. This disc is like hot tea with milk, when you’re at home and it’s freezing out. A shy but efficient ray of sunshine. The artist’s impressive gift for structure and momentum is obvious in songs like ‘Bird of Prey’, ‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me’, and ‘Violently’. Emotions are always worked out with great care, and even if the album seems to be lacking strong moments in the second half, one gives it a new spin almost instinctively.
8. Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
After a four year gap, Florence and the Machine are back with an album produced by Markus Dravs, who notably worked with Arcade Fire (The Suburbs) and Coldplay (Viva la Vida). Here, Dravs provides us with 48 minutes of typically epic Rock, storming onto you with an army of guitars and horns, up until you surrender. The impressive number of potential singles allows me to overlook a rather tepid second half. Songs like ‘Ship to Wreck’, ‘What Kind of Man’, and ‘Queen of Peace’ are vocal bravura works, in addition to being utterly catchy. The lyrics about inner chaos and destruction won’t leave you indifferent, and I’d recommend the album just for the sake of these three songs.
9. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
Being the critically acclaimed album that it is, I Love You, Honeybear can seem to be quite low on this list of the best albums of 2015. It is indeed a very musically pleasant disc, as well as a lyrical feat of dark humor. Josh Tillman (Father John Misty) sketches a very tender and grotesque picture of his married life, and never stumbles into sappy territory. In ‘Chateau Lobby # 4’, he fantasizes about making love to his wife in a wedding dress ‘somebody was probably murdered in’ – the tone is brutally romantic, drunk, and grotesque, if not gothic.
As far as I’m concerned, the lyrics are fine, but I’m rather put off by the music. I admit most tracks are catchy and very well produced, like ‘When You’re Smiling’ or ‘Strange Encounter’. Father John sounds (very much) like Gram Parsons as produced by Phil Spector. But that’s a problem for me. Had it been released in the seventies, the disc would have, no doubt, become an instant classic. However, in 2015, I find it quite weak in the groundbreaking department. The laugh track in ‘Bored in the USA’ was very much talked about, but seriously: the Beatles had already done that, back in 1967! Similarly to Fleet Foxes, drawing much inspiration from the Byrds and the Beach Boys for the crafting of their sound, Father John makes me wonder: do you have to be innovative to be good?
10. Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete
Jamie xx’s In Color was my first pick, but I found it too cautious compared to this one. The concept of Garden of Delete is quite simple to grasp from the first listen on: make an album with bits of unused compositions. This is, of course, a mere concept which OPN often transgresses to work out on more sustained moments. This allows him to build momentum and keep a grasp on our attention. However, the result is no less disturbing as well as compelling. His approach to sounds reminds me of Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral, but with a much more chaotic and elusive quality to it. According to Dusted Magazine, ONP is like a child with ‘intellectual ADHD, [who is] steadfastly refusing to meet your gaze.’ But is that not the whole point here?