YEAR IN REVIEW: My favorite albums of 2015

by Nicholas Cicale (@nickcicale)

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Carrie & Lowell is the year’s most personal album, and probably the darkest. Driven entirely by a folk guitar, a muted piano and Steven’s vocals, each track creates a portrait of the past, as he intimately whispers stories, his deepest thoughts and his fears. Obviously, many of the songs sound the same because they come from the same place, but there isn’t a weak song of the bunch and it’s rare to find an album that flows so seamlessly, and knows exactly what is it. Not one song is out of place, too long or too short. It just feels like one, complete story.

I’m more partial to the piano tracks, and the best is “Fourth of July,” a subtle and sipping piano backed by echoes and ambient harmonics and the album’s best moment is the outro to the title track, which sounds like a striped down version of the Inception soundtrack. But whether the song uses piano or is almost entirely an acoustic guitar, the complexity of sounds he’s able to create with the same instruments (and a handful of effects pedals) over and over again is impressive.

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To Pimp A Butterfly isn’t perfect by any means, and ultimately doesn’t reach the same heights as Good Kid, M.A.D.D. City, but these isn’t an artist out there as confident in their own product as Kendrick Lamar, who recreated his sound without sacrificing really anything that made us like him to begin with. Each song on the album is heavily detailed, layered in production and lyrically on point and culturally relevant.

You know you’re in for something new right away when you’re hit with a Flying Lotus jazz track with a funky Thundercat bassline. He follows that up with by spitting hot fire over a furious drum track on what, for all intents and purposes, should have been a throwaway interlude. Then we get into “King Kunta,” a throwback track that sounds like early Eminem and references the likes of James Brown. Throughout the album, you never know what’s coming next, as songs shift suddenly in mood and in style.

The album’s best tracks are “Alright” and “The Blacker The Berry,” but my favorite moment of the album might be the opening two minutes of “u.” There’s raw emotion, an unorthodox, ever changing flow, and unbelievable production. The screaming, the slow build of the virtuosic saxophone and piano, the female vocals echoing him in the background. It creates so much in such a short amount of time. Another strong moment is “Mortal Man”, which in an album littered with great production, might be the strongest and musically sounds like a part two to “Sing About Me”.

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Where Lonerism had vintage 60s charm, with garage-rocking single “Elephant” and tracks with psychedelic rock long form bridges reminiscent of The Doors, Currents is a new direction for Kevin Parker’s act, with dance synthesizers and computerized harpsichords replacing most of the guitar work and standard rock and roll sounds. The album is more polished, more upbeat and more modern.

The album is sandwiched by two epics that are over six minutes in length. The opener, “Let It Happen,” is a driving and ever evolving symphony made entirely of synthetic sounds, from the looping drum track to the vocodered vocals. The closing track, “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” is similarly intricate, but much more plodding and baroque. There are also three simple interludes each under two minutes, two being electronic samples and a third short rock song, “Disciples,” which gives the album a nice variety of song lengths.

The only problem I have with Currents (which is the same problem I had with Lonerism) is many of the songs fill the same role on the album. While the lyrics might be a little different between them, “Love/Paranoia,” “Past Life,” “Yes I’m Changing,” and “Cause I’m A Man” are instrumentally all slow synth ballads. “Eventually” seems  similar on it’s surface, but stands out because it shifts time signatures, changes pace and transforms from beginning to end, making it one of the album’s best.

The other prominent song archetype is the upbeat synthpop tracks, like “The Moment,” and “The Less I Know The Better.”  “Disciples” also fits this mold, but is more guitar driven and helps transition into the next upbeat tune, “Reality In Motion,” the one song tied this album with their last. While completely fitting in with the modern, electronic theme of Currents, “Reality In Motion” carries drums and guitar reminiscent of “Endors Toi” and “Nothing That Has Happened…”

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Part house music, part indie rock, and part Caribbean steelpan, In Colour paints a wide spectrum of textures and sounds. Jamie xx might be known initially as the multi-instrumental producer for the band The xx, and there are clear musical parallels to the band’s music in his solo work (The two halves of The xx’s vocals are featured on songs; Romy sings on “See Saw” and “Loud Places,” and Oliver Sim is featured on “Stranger In A Room.”). However, the electronic elements are what make In Colour go above and beyond the band’s other works, while the indie heartbreak and human touch make it stand out among the other music of the genre.

“I Know There’s  Gonna Be (Good Times)” is clearly the standout as the album’s only hip-hop track. Buts it’s one of my favorite non-Kendrick rap tracks of the year. It’s overtly vulgar, sarcastically cheerful and does everything myriad rap songs have tried to do and failed over the last four years to get on the radio. Young Thug makes it a hip-hop hit, and the layered production makes it a great song that’s much more than a typical rap track.

But while “Good Times” stands out in part for being different, no song on the album represents what Jamie xx can do better than the opener, Gosh. It’s hard hitting/brash, choppy, yet slowly builds to its delightfully ear piercing climax.

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A lot of this year’s best alternative work drew from the electronic end of the spectrum, but Courtney Barnett stood out by going the other direction and creating one of the few authentic rock and roll records of 2015. An Australian indie rocker with cheeky lyrics and a deadpan delivery, Barnett is able to inject raw energy into each track, whether it’s the blues solos in “Small Poppies,” or the garage-rock riffs throughout “Pedestrian at Best,” and “Elevator Operator.”  Her softer tracks, reminiscent of Coldplay’s debut and other Britpop acts of the late 90s, serve as a good contrast.

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Compared to its electronic contemporaries, “Why Make Sense?” is pretty straightforward. It isn’t as elaborate or operatic as Random Access Memories from a few years back, or as dancey as things that fit into the house or techno genre. It’s a simple synthpop album whose songs are carefree, full of energy and fun. “Love Is The Future” is probably the song that best represents the album as a whole. It’s funky, with a syncopated guitar track and light drum loop, has a great chorus–something that every song on the album has–and builds from beginning to end, closing with the addition of a string section after the De La Soul verse.

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Grimes isn’t the easiest artist to get into because there’s so much going on on each album. Similar to artist like Bjork, her voice is high pitched and brash, she uses foreign sounds with oriental influences and harsh production. But Art Angels is essentially a pop album masked in noise, with catchy hooks and pretty standardized song structures. All the intricacies on the album, however, make it intoxicating, and you can’t really get a fix from anywhere else. 

 

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Listening to Poison Season feels like watching a Broadway show. Each song tells a chapter of a larger story, and Dan Bejar’s lyrics paint a picture that’s very easy to visualize, while an eclectic mix of grand orchestral arrangements, virtuosic jazz ensembles, Springsteen-styled song builds and acoustic musings grab our attention.

Each song is beautiful and captivating, but the album feels almost too perfect, too grandiose, and too intellectually layered to process all at once. I know it’s a great work, and could be well above my comprehension, but if an album has ever been too overwhelming to enjoy in one sitting, this is it.

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This is my favorite Death Cab album in 10 years. “No Room in Frame” is a wispy and intricate opener, “Black Sun” and “Little Wanderer” are fine singles, and there are plenty of ballads sprinkled throughout.   The songs are consistently more upbeat than usual, achieved by mixing a few synthetic sounds here and there while keeping the signature Death Cab riffs and lyrics.

There are, however, two things that are noticeably absent on the album. The first is that it lacks an emotional, six or seven-minute epic that swells and encompasses the feeling of the entire album, which can be found on all their other albums since 2003.  (You could probably make the argument that the tracks work together so well that one wasn’t needed, but I would have liked some more variety in terms of song length and structure.) Also, there isn’t an individual song that really stands out over the rest. Typically, the band has a song or two you just connected with emotionally and could listen to over and over again. Kintugi really doesn’t have that. “The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive” is the closest we get, and while it’s fun and upbeat, it isn’t as deep as some tracks in the past.

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I personally thought Lupe Fiasco was pretty much done making albums I would enjoy, but Tetsuo & Youth  was a return to form for the rapper. While the beats are a little cleaner and more pop-oriented, the lyrics are as moving as ever. “T.R.O.N.” is the best overall track on the album, “Body Of Work” has the best production, “Prisoners” is probably the most emotional, and “Chopper” is Lupe’s most ghetto sounding song to date. The album is long, but minus “Little Death” and “No Scratches” back to back, it moves really well, and each track stand up on it’s own well.

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Cherry Bomb is Tyler the Creator’s most ambitious undertaking. To recover from the Wolf–underwhelming and plodding–he had to ditch a lot of the dark, heavy aspects that made Goblin great, but still keep the sarcastic sodomy and self deprivation that gave him his edge.

It works for the most part. Apart from the intentionally-bad mixing that makes many of the lyrics inaudible and a lot of the songs beats muddy, the production is phenomenal and diverse, capturing his signature heavy bass, synths and piano while emulating his idol, Pharrell and mixing in jazz instrumentals and soul vocals.

Whether it’s the ruckus songs like “Pilot” and the title track, the guitar-driven opener “Deathcamp” or the R&B-parody “Fucking Young,” there’s intrigue around every corner. However, “Smuckers” is easily the best track. I’m a sucker for songs shift and adjust their beat each verse to assist the artist’s flow, and this song does that really well. Plus, it’s Lil Wayne’s best verse in years.

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I always think The Magic Whip would work better as an EP. Most of the tracks are fine, but the run from “Ice Cream Man” through ”There Are Too Many Of Us” is a perfect showcase of stylistic diversity tied together with an overarching theme.

“Ice Cream Man” is a dark nursery rhyme, childish in sound but totalitarian in nature.   “My Terracotta Heart” covers the uncertainty of a now-rocky relationship with a close friend on top of a weeping guitar, and “Thought I Was A Spaceman” tackles feelings of isolations, and being lost after a breakup.  “I Broadcast” is a frantic rock track about feeling out of place in a new situation.  Finally, ”There Are Too Many Of Us” takes us back full circle to political themes of complacence and compliance.  This time, instead of youthful ignorance of ice cream, there’s a march-like urgency to the song.

The rest of the album isn’t bad by any means, but it does seem to taper off after that, and there’s nothing I ever feel too obligated to listen to. The album isn’t particularly long, but sometimes less is more.

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The best track off If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late probably wouldn’t land in Drake’s top 10, but the work is more seamless and real than anything Drake has done prior.

The album’s still missing the frills that made some of Take Care’s strongest tracks (and made the album over the top at times), but on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, Drake stops taking himself too seriously, and stops trying to forcefully fit into the current R&B club and trap-beat culture that’s unfortunately taken over hip-hop. Instead, he mad nap-rap his own.

At 17 tracks and 69 minutes in length, the albums probably two or three songs too long, especially considering the consistently sparse nature of the production. However, there isn’t much separating the boring, lame parts of the album–“Energy,” “Used To,” and the first half of “No Telling,”–with the really strong tracks, “Know Yourself,”6 Man” ” Jungle” and “Star67,” which has a Take Care vibe.
The album also comes to a strong close.  “You and the 6” and “6PM In New York” could easily be B-sides off Thank Me Later, capturing the charm and confidence Drake possessed early in his career and tackling the same inner conflicts.

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