Favourite Albums of 2015 – #3 to #1

Note: Listen to every song on these albums. They’re worth your time.

#3. King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude – Pusha T

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Pusha almost didn’t give us this masterpiece this year: dropped in mid-December, Darkest Before Dawn is the absolute last album to make my list. And with good reason: this is Pusha T’s best solo body of work so far. There is absolutely no excess on this LP: at 10 tracks and about 30 minutes long, this is an effortless listen, and every track makes its presence felt, loud and clear.

Push is rapping at his sharpest, on some of the best production he’s had. There is noticeable edge to the vocals and the lyrics, exacerbated by the issues of race Push touches on through the album. And while he’s always had great production, here is focussed, thematic production; there is no joy to it, the 808s and bass elevating the grit of Pusha’s lyrics to powerful places. Darkest Before Dawn is a testament to Pusha T as a musician, as one who can curate a laser-sharp body of work. And to think, this is only the prelude.

#2. In Colour – Jamie xx

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In Colour is one of those wonderful albums that can be treated as an audio-visual experience by virtue of its cover art and the music itself. Vibrant, warm, cool and silky in turns, this project is one of the most eclectic electronic albums in recent memory. What stands out the most is the seamless incorporation of samples, original production and vocals to present a flowing piece of music that finds form without being limited by any of its elements. Jamie xx incorporates a veritable plethora of influences with a remarkably contemporary flavour, ensuring that In Colour isn’t eccentric, yet like nothing you’ve heard before. I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times), a tropical pop wonder, with rap and reggaaeton vocals is a thematic crux of the album.

Jamie xx is a connoisseur of electronica, and In Colour is his most compelling buffet. Let the music play and soak in its beauty.

#1. To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

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Everyone saw this coming. There is no way around it. To Pimp A Butterfly album transcends rap. Hell, this album transcends music. What Kendrick is conveying here moves beyond the realm of socially conscious music; it is a consciousness all in itself. This album is so incredibly complex, sonically and conceptually.  The lyrics, quite literally, weave short stories that cohere into an incredibly descriptive whole. They are, as James Joyce put it, the portrait of an artist and by extension, his culture. In the same vein, the production on TPAB is aggressively retro, while still sounding fresh; a melting pot of black music, be it funk or jazz or the blues. This is hip-hop grounded firmly in its roots. I am truly stunned by the magnitude of this album.

To Pimp A Butterfly isn’t meant to be easy listening, it isn’t music you can listen to passively. This is a microcosm of the spectrum of overwhelming life  Kendrick has lived through. It is a representation of the African-American experience, through the eyes of one if its own, straddling the line between stardom and humility, money and power, and good and bad. This is, dare I say it, a classic work of art.

 

 

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Favourite Albums of 2015 – #3 to #1

Favourite Albums of 2015 – #6 to #4

#6. GO:OD AM – Mac Miller

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Mac Miller has had a roller coaster of a musical career, in a very short span of time. From the eager, frat boy rapper from KIDS and Blue Slide Park, to the drug-addled, contemplative Mac of Watching Movies With The Sound Off and Faces, Mac Miller has finally reached a point in his music where he can look to the highs, rather than rely on them. The production is inspired, and his rhymes lithe. There’s a cohesive sound that, at times, reminds me of Low End Theory era ATCQ. Noticeably, the album sounds less cluttered – despite the long running time – much like the mind behind the music, with a focus on keeping the message in focus. Mac is continuing to learn from his past, and he walks the listener through each step of the way. He’s making the music he’s always wanted to, starting with a fresh slate; Mac has finally woken up to a good morning.

Listen to: 100 Grandkids, Weekend, In The Bag, Perfect Circle/God Speed

#5. Positive Songs For Negative People – Frank Turner

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Frank Turner has always been a personal favourite because I’ve always found a song of his that I could relate to at any given moment.  In that vein, the minute I read this album’s title I knew what it would mean to me. The first time I listened to this album was during a particularly difficult period, and this LP was that spark of optimism I so desperately needed. The songs here are hopeful, but without any sugarcoating. Frank acknowledges his struggles, using them as the backdrop to his hopes for the present and the future. He is the everyman’s musician, with few grandiose ambitions, motivated only by love, for people and music. Driven by his energetic vocals and production, Frank ensures that his every word connects with the listener with a visceral force that a gifted few other artists can accomplish. On behalf of negative people everywhere: thank you.

Listen To: The Next Storm, Glorious You, Out of Breath, Song for Josh

#4. Wilder Mind – Mumford and Sons

Mumford and Sons are increasingly becoming a polarising figure in music. Despite their massive popularity, they’ve also got equally fierce critics. This debate saw its peak with the release of this album; many fans were disappointed by the complete shift in instrumentation, and angered by the abandonment of the signature folk/bluegrass sound for what was seen as a generic pop-rock band. But an honest, unbiased listen to Wilder Mind will show you that this is still Mumford in its soul. In fact, in quite a few ways, I saw this project as a marked improvement over Babel, particularly in the lyrics and repetition of sound. Marcus’ vocals are at their best here: gut-wrenching, soulful and passionate, often all at once. The acoustic sounds may have been replaced by an electric palate, but the dynamics of the soundscape is still very much Mumford; incredibly emotive at its quietest, and soaring at its loudest. Wilder Mind will unapologetically pull at every last one of your heartstrings. It is an ode to pain and loss, but most importantly, to that all-encompassing enigma, love. And I couldn’t ask for a more compelling tribute to what I believe to be the most powerful sentiment we possess.

Listen to: The Wolf, Wilder Mind, Snake Eyes, Hot Gates

Favourite Albums of 2015 – #6 to #4

Favourite Albums of 2015 – #10 to #7

#10. Ones and Sixes– Low

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My favourite albums go beyond being merely a pleasant listen. They make me evaluate and re-evaluate my preconceptions and my emotional stature; these albums are the ones that justify my spiritual connect to music. Ones and Sixes was the first such album for me in 2015. The project as a whole is glacial and epic, imbibing a sense of  sweeping melancholia and despair, albeit tinged with glimmers of hope. The production is minimal and never overwhelms, but there is a mass and power to it upon which the haunting, blending vocals waft to stunning highs. For me, this album was one of the most emotional listens of the year, and I am indebted to Low for this musical experience.

Listen to: Gentle, Spanish Translation, What Part of Me

#9. Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens

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In my opinion, Sufjan Stevens is one of the best songwriters of this generation. His words are intensely personal, yet universal in their relevance. Carrie & Lowell is an autobiographical project detailing Sufjan’s strained relationship with his mother, Carrie and the bright spot that was his stepfather Lowell. The stripped down atmosphere here is insular; the light strings and keys firmly in the background to Sufjan’s vocal presence. Themes of burdensome pain, sadness, loss and death permeate this album; it’s far from an uplifting piece of music. It’s catharsis; therapeutic art for Sufjan, that the listener has been allowed to share in. In its own dark way, Carrie & Lowell is a testing foil to life.

Listen to: Death With Dignity, The Only Thing, Carrie & Lowell

#8. Summertime ’06 – Vince Staples

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Vince Staples’ USP as a rapper is straightforward: he will never bullshit you. The Long Beach native refuses to glamourize the harsh, hard life he’s known growing up amongst broken homes, gangs, drugs and stifling poverty. The stories he weaves are intricate, incisive, and almost depressively real, and they leave you hanging on every word.  Vince’s voice is unflinching, detailing his teenage life with a disconcerting detachment, which lends credence to the idea that while that life is very much a part of him, he wants no part of it. Aided by dark, foreboding production, Vince on Summertime ’06  is the sound of the streets; blood-stained, gravelly and cold.

Listen to:  Lift Me Up, Jump Off The Roof, SummertimeSurf

#7. Currents – Tame Impala

Currents is that obligatory entry in nearly every musician’s discography: the breakup album; albeit so much more nuanced than your average Taylor Swift album. Running the gamut of emotions from conflict to yearning to acceptance, this album is frontman Kevin Parker’s declaration that he’s a “brand new person” who will deal with love and loss on his own terms. In many ways, this path is reflected in the production. And the production, handled by Kevin himself, is nothing short of a revelation. There is no sound quite like this. Expansive, emotive and mesmerizing, this is psychedelia at its absolute best. Electronics buzz around, eclectic sonic textures cohere into sounds that invoke the perfect reaction at the perfect moment, while Kevin’s surreal vocals alternatively soar and coalesce into the bed of music he lays so well. Tame Impala’s current is unlike any other, and every listener is privileged to be astride for the voyage.

Listen to: Let It Happen, The Less I Know The Better, ‘Cause I’m A Man, New Person,Same Old Mistakes

Favourite Albums of 2015 – #10 to #7

Favourite Albums of 2015 – #13 to #11

 

#13. Rodeo – Travis Scott

 

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Travis Scott is not a good rapper in the traditional sense. Let’s get that out of the way. But in 2015’s hip-hop scene, that doesn’t matter as much. What does matter is a rapper’s ‘sound’, his ear for production and skill in curating talent. And Travis Scott is exceptional on all these counts; his sound being one of apparent contradiction. The sounds of Rodeo are intoxicant-laden, yet have clarity. The production is heavy, but interspersed with subtle details, Travis’ vocals are slurred but have melody and rhythm, and the features overflow yet stick to the grander ideas. This album is less about Travis and more about the greater pool of musicians he helps bring together, but with him as the conductor, orchestrating the mass into forms that are beyond satisfying. And Rodeo is all the better for it.

Listen to: 3500, Maria I’m Drunk, 90210

#12. Surf – Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment

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Chance the Rapper may be the most recognizable voice on Surf, but the project is credited to Donnie Trumpet and his Social Experiment band for the simple reason that the soundscape they provide is truly the backbone of this album. Consequently, it serves as a diverse palette of musical influences and gorgeous sonic textures, bouncing between funk, jazz, blues, hip-hop and more; drawing on, and building upon their hometown of Chicago’s rich musical traditions. Besides Chano, the guest features are meticulously chosen, and almost all of them bring their A-game, which is particularly gratifying considering the relatively unconventional production. This LP represents the pinnacle of a 20th century-influenced revitalization of hip-hop. Surf is warm, playful, thoughtful, and one hell of an album.

Listen to: Slip Slide, Wanna Be Cool, Familiar

#11. Elaenia – Floating Points

One word: ethereal. Sam Shepherd, musical auteur/neuroscientist has, with Elaenia, produced a body of work that is precise in its purpose: but that purpose is that the music remain utterly amorphous. There is little to be said for form in this album. Sound bytes float in and out of the atmosphere, sonic elements glitch and apparate at seemingly random points, and yet the entirety of this album crescendoes towards an almost supernatural conclusion. It would be a discredit to the music here to pin it to a genre, and therein lies its beauty. The listener should not seek to listen to Elaenia as much as immerse oneself in its sparse, stark magnificence. Let the nerves of this piece bind themselves around your spine, and send chills running up it.

Listen to: Silhouettes(I,II and III), Thin Air

Favourite Albums of 2015 – #13 to #11

Favourite Albums of 2015 – #16 to #14

#16. Thank Your Lucky Stars/Depression Cherry – Beach House

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Thank you Beach House, for dropping two incredible albums in the same year. Championing a genre that deserves greater exposure, Beach House puts shoegaze front and center in these projects. The production is intricate and textured, but never jarring. Gliding and swirling through the layers is vocalist Victoria Legrand’s tranquil voice. The music on these albums is thematically complex, but its reupholstering of dream pop makes it a serene listen. Wonderfully, these albums complement each other. If Depression Cherry is the surreal dream, Thank Your Lucky Stars is the jolt back to a harsher reality. All you need for this experience is to close your eyes and let the music engulf you.

 

#15. Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes

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If the grooves and funk that slinks its way in and out of the spaces of this album don’t make you feel incredibly alive, kindly visit a doctor for your soul.  This is an album that will tug at your heartstrings just as well as it might cause you to pull a hamstring while dancing.  It feels epic, without losing any of Alabama Shakes’ everyman soul. Sound & Color is truly an appropriate title; rather than music, this is on par with a vibrant theatrical performance. And as with any good performance piece, there’s little else to be said about this album. Experience it. It’s worth every second.

Listen to: Don’t Wanna Fight, Shoegaze, Future People 

 

#14. A.L.L.A – A$AP Rocky

A$AP Rocky has been an intriguing character from the start of his career. His music, Houston-inspired despite him being from New York, placed him as an outlier in the culture, just as much as his fashion sense did. Yet, Rocky’s been having massive success. A.L.L.A however, unravels quite a bit of the person behind the success and conflicts. Still recovering from A$AP Yams’ sudden death and a breakup, while still dealing with his fame, Rocky infuses A.L.L.A  with lyrics that are in turns mournful, frustrated, celebratory, and brash, backed by production dripping with psychedelic influences. It isn’t possible to nail down a single persona for A$AP Rocky, and that seems to be the point. A.L.L.A is self-assured, often arrogant, an album that revels in its darkness; much like the man responsible for the music.

Listen to: L$D (Love $ex Dreams), Canal St, Everyday

Favourite Albums of 2015 – #16 to #14

Favourite Albums of 2015 – #19 to #17

#19. The Magic Whip – Blur

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It’s been 12 years since the last Blur album. 12 years that’s been marked by accelerated technological development, glitz and a popular culture that is the antithesis of the mood that alt-rock bands like Blur and its ilk purveyed. The Magic Whip is Damon Albarn and Co’s viewing glass into this world that we live in, and spoiler alert: they’re not exactly taken by it. Continuing themes from Everyday Robots, Albarn’s 2014 solo project, the LP bleaches the neon glamour of our smartphone-driven culture, seeking to lay bare the ennui. Sometimes soft, sometimes grand, The Magic Whip is often unsure of its purpose; but given the mood of the album , I wonder if it wasn’t deliberate.

Listen to: There Are Too Many Of Us, Thought I Was A Spaceman

 

18. American Beauty/American Psycho – Fall Out Boy

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Stadium rock. meet hip-hop . Now both of you, meet the new Fall Out Boy. You’ll all get along splendidly. Perfecting the formula they hit upon with Save Rock & Roll, FOB takes the tight, razor-sharp structures of hip-hop and layers it with high-octane guitars, pounding drums and soaring choruses to deliver visceral, anthemic, rock that can only be described as a shot of pure adrenaline. American Beauty/American Psycho is magnificent, and chaotic. Subtle it is not, but the trade-off for nuance is that every emotion on display here is cranked up to a million. And honestly, I see little reason to come down from the high.

Listen To: Irresistible, Jet Pack Blues

#17. Compton – Dr Dre

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Goddamn Dre, where have you been? This album isn’t (the now-scrapped) Detox, but that scarcely matters. Compton is an event all in itself, and the good Doctor shows the listener why he should never be forgotten as a musician and producer. Truly a West Coast project, Dre employs a number of his protegees, from Snoop Dogg and Eminem, to Game and Kendrick, as well as newer entrants like Anderson.Paak, to recount an epic tale of his hometown, from its darkest holes to its most hopeful beacons. His lyrics may be ghost-written, but Dre’s incredible mic presence and grit are a force to be reckoned with. Ultimately though, it isn’t a Dr Dre album without the impeccable production. It isn’t the absolute innovator that projects like the Chronic  have been, but that doesn’t change the fact that few albums coalesce the current sound with the curator’s stamp as well as Compton does. Dre finally seems to have said all that he needs to say, and I’m glad he chose to make this statement on wax.

Listen To: Talk About It, Deep Water

Favourite Albums of 2015 – #19 to #17

Favourite Albums of 2015 – #22 to #20

#22. Wildheart – Miguel

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Full disclosure: I don’t usually care much for RnB. Despite this, I count myself as a fan of Miguel for his ability to incorporate diverse influences, beyond tradtional RnB, into his music, while still being centered on his incredible, authentic vocals. The result of this artistic dabbling is one of the richest-sounding albums of the year. From the hip-hop swagger on N.W.A to Coffee’s vivid emotiveness, Wildheart is a bold statement on positive sexuality and pleasure, and marks a definitive moment in contemporary music.

Listen to: Coffee, face the sun

#21. Big Grams – Big Grams

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The brainchild of Big Boi (one-half of the legendary OutKast) and electronic group Phantogram, Big Grams is quite simply one of my favourite collaborative efforts, and favourite musical surprises, of the year. The sensual, slow-burning electronica and Sarah Barthel vocals are a perfect foil to Big Boi’s cocky, self-assured mic presence on tracks like Run For Your Life and Fell In The Sun; while they veer towards braggodicious hip-hop powered by skittering beats on tracks such as Born To Shine. Golden as the cover art, Big Grams is one of the coolest albums of the year. My only real complaint with this project is that there isn’t more of it.

Listen To: Run For Your Life, Drum Machine

#20. Genesis Series EP – ZHU

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ZHU, the person, may still be quite the enigma, but his music has a clear purpose: seduce the entire damn dance floor. Thanks to a much higher profile this year, ZHU accentuates this EP’s sound through an array of impeccably chosen collaborators, while ensuing his sound is not lost in the crowd. The signature synths and keys are guaranteed to get you grooving, while the featured vocals interplay with ZHU’s falsetto in exciting ways. Whether you’re an audiophile or a club regular, the Genesis Series EP will treat you ears to auditory sensuality.

Listen To: Hold Up Wait A Minute , Modern Conversation 

Favourite Albums of 2015 – #22 to #20