FLOOD’s Best of 2015: Music (#25–5)
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
2015 has been rough in a lot of ways, but it’s been an incredible time for music. We got career-best records from Tame Impala, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, Julia Holter, and Kendrick Lamar—any one of which would have been the best record of just about any year out of the past ten. We met a few fresh faces along the way, and a few old favorites tried out some new tricks. Narrowing it all down to the twenty-five best releases of the year was excruciating in the best kind of way.
In fact, we enjoyed the process so much that we decided to extend it for an entire week. Every day starting tomorrow, we’ll be revealing one of our top four records of the year. And to let you know where we’re coming from, today we’re bringing you numbers twenty-five through five. Make sure to check back tomorrow for number four.
But let’s not delay things any further. Barring a Black Messiah–style surprise release (hold your horses, Radiohead), we proudly and confidently present to you the twenty-five best records of 2015.
The combination of Big Boi and Phantogram makes sense on the page—intergalactic words meet intergalactic beats, sounds about right—but it explodes off the record. The Outkast emcee and the LA duo hooked up for some sessions, got blunted, and threw down seven killer tracks. This thing moves like a brown stallion horse with skates on, ya know?
Leon Bridges saw the road paved by Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and, instead of moving forward musically, took that road all the way back to the 1960s. But while he isn’t pioneering any new territory, Bridges easily transcends the domain of novelty with his convincing songwriting and undeniable talent.
Born from the tragic (and too, too soon) end of Calgary band Women with the death of guitarist Chris Reimer in 2012, Viet Cong’s self-titled debut continues an inescapable, momentous legacy. The ties that bind Viet Cong to its past may never be broken, but the band are not continuing a thread so much as they are stitching something entirely new from frayed ends.
Jason Chung makes music for the dark—specifically, the infinite and impermanent moment just around midnight. For Fated, Nosaj Thing’s third LP (and second for Innovative Leisure), Chung explores all subconscious realms, capturing the weird, more sinister qualities of oOoOO, the ambient lushness of Clams Casino, and the crossover appeal of James Blake and Flying Lotus.
On Hypnophobia, his strong second album, Dutch musician Jacco Gardner tones down the saccharine and ornate details of his debut. The resultant sonic space brings his sound into the future and shows off his seemingly endless, ghostlike melodies and warm, groove-centered production.
Three albums (and one EP) in, The Mantles are owning their outsider status, and rather than saying “Hello,” or shouting “What We Do Matters,” as they have done in the past, frontman Michael Olivares spends most of All Odds End muttering grandly about the poetic emptiness of it all. They may be firmly embedded in the Bay Area, but scene is irrelevant on this album—as it should be on any exceptional release.
The nine tracks that make up Thee Oh Sees’ latest record are full of a vibrancy that transcends the age of their influences. It makes for a hazy dream of an album, one that both advances the band’s malleable sound and operates within it.
Josh Tillman’s second release under the Father John Misty moniker is a near-faultless crystallization of all of his competing interests. From the soulful gospel of “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” to the cherubic synth-pop of “True Affection,” this kaleidoscope of a release is brimming with ideas both batty and inspired.
On his solo debut, Arcade Fire’s Will Butler again and again demonstrates the talent for unexpected spectacle that he shows every night on stage with his main piece. In possession of the rare gift of Gano—the voice that can deadpan charm or unleash the ravings of a madman—he uses the spectrum to unleash frenetic, whiskey-lit Americana punk, a tempered and true love song, and artfully arranged dance-rock deconstructions.
Elvis Perkins’ third full-length, largely recorded by himself at home, finds the New York singer-songwriter sounding as if he’s deliberately avoiding the flowing melodies that define his first two records. It’s clearly by design—let the beauty and spontaneity of these songs sink in, and they just may consume you.
Sure, Vulnicura is a breakup record, but Björk would never do anything so insipid as whine about a broken heart. In fact, the enormous visceral power of Vulnicura lies perhaps in its utter lack of pity play; she transforms every emotion into a monumetnal sonic peak or valley. As this stunningly affecting work once again proves, nothing—from monogamy to museum walls—could ever contain her tremendous spirit.
That LA theater-pop lifers Sparks would team up with Scottish dance-rock revivalists Franz Ferdinand might come as a surprise initially, but upon listening to the supergroup’s excellent musical results, all doubts vanish. Not only does FFS make one sit up and take notice, it excites fans of either (or both) halves as they think about the potential experiments and releases of the future.
Deerhunter’s seventh studio album Fading Frontier has all the markings of the typical “righting the ship” release. Whereas 2013’s Monomania was a gritty and bluesy blast of garage rock, the new album finds the band tinkering with more brightly festooned melodies. After some time in the wilderness, this is frontman Bradford Cox’s triumphant return, and it’s heartening to see the enigmatic singer back in the saddle.
All the way down to its title, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper seems to mark the resolution of a sequence that began with 2004’s Young Prayer. As Noah Lennox takes us along on deeper and increasingly fluid explorations into the vernacular of electronic music, he’s somewhat paradoxically revealed a tether to the monastic origins of his singular vocal style. Put differently, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper shows that no matter how far out Lennox gets, he’s never far from home.
11. Courtney Barnett — Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (MOM + POP)
Last year’s international release of Courtney Barnett’s compilation The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas showed the Australian singer to be an innovative artist who knows to wring every possible drop of drama out of the most banal of sources. This spirit continues on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. With this record, she sidesteps any quaint expectations and delivers a true debut album that can surprise listeners with its depth and universality.
As Battles enters their thirteenth year, the experimental group sounds more at ease than ever before. At no point in La Di Da Di does their sound come across as anxiously cluttered or antagonistically minimal; in fact, bleeps and bloops have never sounded so naturally birthed.
Since her 2004 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, Joanna Newsom’s music has expanded into an orchestral whirl of melodic diversions, ten-dollar words, and that voice, which has grown into something more mellifluous than it once was. The kinds of fable-like songs that marked her early career are expanded on Divers into Joycean exercises. The title track, a seven-minute harp and piano excursion that converges Eastern melody and Western pop-ballad pageantry, feels like the pinnacle of her remarkable career.
Ruban Neilson’s mastered ability with soul and R&B is what separates Multi-Love from Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s previous releases. The seven-minute jam “Puzzles” eases from sound collage to deep disco beats and back out to an ornate folk final, and across the album, drums are either encased in fuzz or so solidly in the pocket, you’d think they were sampling breaks. While they’ve flirted with big moves beyond the bedroom psych realm before, Multi-Love really transports listeners into lush zones filled with hypnotic future-funk.
While it retains the magic of 2013’s conceptual jazz nocturne Loud City Song, Julia Holter’s fourth album finds her confidently stepping into her own as a storyteller. Newer, more eclectic influences—like Talk Talk’s eerie post-rock or the 1958 film Gigi—have seeped into her sound, but Holter’s animated voice and talents as a pianist remain at the core of what she does.
On Wilco’s eleventh LP, Jeff Tweedy has pushed forward as the definitive, driving force of the Chicago band once again—and by no coincidence, it’s his best set of music since the 2004 classic A Ghost is Born. Each song contributes to the portrait of a painfully professional songwriter, and each arrangement seems to emanate from a place of relaxed focus on behalf of the rest of the sextet. Nothing feels forced, and that’s likely because there was little to prove on this—a surprise, free album.
Carrie & Lowell—Sufjan Stevens’s seventh conventional album in a long line of releases that include Christmas LPs and one-off projects—is a heartbreaking and, at times, unbearably painful account of his attempts to process the death of his mother in 2012. The considerable weight of Stevens’s grief is supported only by the light architecture of fingerpicked guitars and occasional keyboards, and is insulated by processed found sound that swells wordlessly between songs. He rarely raises his voice above a whisper. It goes without saying that this stuff risks being maudlin and overwrought, precious at best. But Carrie & Lowell is a miracle of aesthetic balance—a calm and considered confession.