2015 has been a great year for music, particularly for solo artists. Adele released 25, a follow-up album to her groundbreaking age-denoted 19 and 21 that immediately rose to the top of charts and minds. Attention-grabbing British superstars aside, the underground scene saw the meteoric rise of gender-fluid pop stars, solo ventures of established bands, and a general proliferation of great individual-driven acts. So without further ado, here are the Top Five albums that caught our attention this year.
- Multi-Love, Unknown Mortal Orchestra
The Auckland-Portland collective, driven by singer-songwriter Ruben Nielson, has been a critic favorite since the release of their self-titled debut album in 2011. In early 2015, the band released Multi-Love, an album that defies the psychedelia genre by incorporating minimalist versions of vintage pop elements. For example, the eponymous track is a shimmery mix of Lonerism-era Tame Impala and your favorite Scandinavian pop from the 80s. On “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”, a slinky horns section segues into a syncopated interpretation of a disco-heyday track.
In fact, both tracks highlight the stylistic theme that pervades the entire album: the fact that Nielson has a damned good ear for understanding how to turn a musical trope inside out. Take “The World is Crowded”: it’s counter-intuitive that the song could be that sonically pleasing when it has so much potential to be sped-up and jazzed-up into, say, a Maroon 5 hit. But Nielson makes it work, and with great confidence. The same with “Puzzles”: there’s enough snaking bass on there to pique Josh Homme’s interest, but Nielson tames the beast with his chosen pace.
Overall, Multi-Love starts off as a fresh take on psych-pop and ends as a stand-alone great album. Guaranteed to stay with you a few years.
Best track: “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”
- Art Angels, Grimes
Grimes shot to the top of the charts in 2011 with her absurd, literate brand of synth pop. The music video of her viral hit, “Genesis”, was inspired by a Judgment Day painting drawn by a 15th-century Dutch religious painter, and she considers Hustler Magazine CFO’s daughter Brooke Candy as her personal muse. Her idiosyncrasies may paint her as purely an art-pop phenomena, but with Art Angels, Grimes successfully crosses over into pop that can be enjoyed by all, no matter personal dispositions towards abstract art.
What surprised us on first listen is the fact that almost every track on the album could be a bonafide pop hit, if only exaggerated with a few mainstream flourishes. However, Grimes’ eccentric touches – whether it’s the vocal trills on “Flesh without Blood” or the K-pop-inspired AutoTune on “Kill V. Maim” – elevate the album much beyond its mainstream confines.
Art Angels really rises above the bar set by Visions because of the sheer number of new landscapes that Grimes has explored. “Venus Fly”, featuring the inimitable Janelle Monae, has a bomb-ass beat that could be the soundtrack to an advert by an impossibly-cool fast-fashion brand. If “California” came on the radio, you would be sure that it was a remixed version of a Taylor Swift-outtake from her country-darling days. Essentially, Grimes has managed to surprise us by being, well, normal.
Art Angels sees Grimes evolve from a wildfire underground act to a unique pop star that is okay with taking a wider audience into her fold. And that’s definitely a good thing.
Best track: “Venus Fly”
- Ratchet, Shamir
Shamir and his home-town, Las Vegas, have one key aspect in common: they defy normality. Vegas is the world’s playground, a campy, adult-sized amusement park with rides that revolve around desperation and addiction. On Ratchet, Shamir defies age, gender, orientation and our expectations by creating ten tracks that succinctly sum up his generation.
“Vegas”, the album opener, is an ode to this very connection. With an androgynous voice as fluid as his gender, Shamir gives us an insider’s view into life in Sin City (“You can come to the city of sin and get away without bail/But if you’re living in the city oh you already in hell”) over a sparse beat that bubbles and pops. Vegas is the spiritual backbone of many of his sparkly dancefloor tracks, as well. For example, “Hot Mess”, with surreal Hot Chip-esque beats slathered against an acid house bass, hides anguish behind hypnotic Technicolor, much like Las Vegas does.
Shamir also stands out as the best representation of his post-millennial generation, a group that has never known life without the endless possibilities facilitated by the Internet. On “Make a Scene”, a dizzying ode to poor teenage decisions, Shamir exhorts you to kiss strangers in lust-fuelled nights while simultaneously thumbing his nose at superficial Tinder culture. He expands on this theme on “On the Regular” – “Don’t try me, I’m not a free sample”, he chides, atop a dazzling mash-up of boasts reminiscent of Le1f and Azalea Banks. It’s only fitting that the song has been used for Android Wear commercials!
With Ratchet, Shamir has proven that he has a future as bright as his hometown’s glittering Strip. Expect more from this guy, for sure.
Best track: “On the Regular”
- In Colour, Jamie xx
Jamie xx, one-half of Britain’s foremost minimalist act the xx, is a master of repition. He knows how to balance a layer, carefully and precisely, until the track becomes a chaotic, living beast – like a Jenga tower in reverse.
While the xx is mainly known for breathy vocals over sparse beats, In Colours shows off the range of Jamie xx’s textural arsenal. Jungle beats form the perfect, if unlikely, minimalist element on “Gosh”, which reels you in with chant-like thumps that belie a melody forming right in front of your ears. On “SeeSaw”, a trip-hop pulse creates the perfect anti-thesis to xx bandmate Romy Croft’s signature dreampop vocals. “Obvs” is a four-minute electronic paean to the steelpan; it’s even more magical than it sounds.
The album-standout “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” just serves to prove Jamie’s hypnotic dexterity. Although the song features Young Thug spitting lyrics that would make Lil Wayne blush, and wonky dancehall beats from Popcaan, the genius lies in Jamie’s skill in synthesizing these elements into a summer-time radio hit.
On In Colour, Jamie xx displays layering wizardry that hasn’t been seen since this side of Merriweather Post Pavilion. A musical roller coaster, if there ever was one.
Best track: “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”
- Currents, Tame Impala
If you’ve been reading our articles for a while, you know that we’re great fans of Tame Impala. The Perth pysch phenomenon’s Lonerism earned numerous mentions on our articles throughout 2012 and eventually topped our year-end list. It’s déjà vu, then: Currents is, in our honest opinion, the best album of the year.
Over the three years since Lonerism, Kevin Parker – the one-man army behind Tame Impala – has grown considerably. His words have sharpened, his beats are more full-bodied and his anguish is far more complex. While previous records allowed us not-so-fleeting glimpses into his brooding mania, Currents shows him alternatively trying to let go more and hold on tighter – a fascinating combination that leaves you hooked from start to end.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the haunting album-opener “Let It Happen”. Parker speaks of a voice telling him to let his paranoia go, but undercuts his would-be catharsis with gloom that chills you to your bones: “If my takeoff fails, make up some other story/And if I never come back, tell my mother I’m sorry.” It’s a train-wreck, slowed down to a speed that underscores the stark beauty in destruction.
He shows progress, though. On “Cause I’m A Man”, he accepts his faults as the man in the relationship, slicing away at self-hate by handing over the reins to his woman (“You see, I have a conscience and it’s never fooled/ But it’s prone to be overruled”). “Eventually” sparkles with liberation, after a break-up that would have left erstwhile-Parker in a death spiral (“But I know that I’ll be happier/And I know you will too”). It’s an interesting turn of events.
Currents lies at the exact sweet spot of lyrical genius and musical innovation, alongside its two predecessors. It’s also perfectly-named: Kevin Parker is changing as a person, and his music circles him like an eddy in a flowing stream. Aptly, Currents will change your life – if you just let it happen.
Best track: “Let It Happen”