Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Best of 2015 (So Far)

Isn't it wonderful when an album becomes like a public square and a huge variety of people come together to debate and celebrate its merits? Kendrick Lamar's extraordinary To Pimp A Butterfly definitely falls into this category and as such is probably the most important record of the year so far. 

But it is part of the critic's duty to balance the personal and the public and to speak from their heart, which is why To Pimp A Butterfly is not my number one album at this point.

That honor goes to Holly Miranda's self-titled second (or third, depending on how you count) album. While PhD theses may not be written unpacking dense political themes, hearing her completely blossom as an artist is a thrill in its own right. Also, watching a lesbian couple sing along to All I Want Is To Be Your Girl at Holly's recent concert does lend some weight to her place in the culture at this time in history. 

With that said, and with further ado shown the door, here's my Top 20 of the year so far. 

1. Holly Miranda - Holly Miranda We've known for some time that Holly Miranda is a genius interpreter. Now she finally has written a batch of songs consistently worthy of her gifts as a singer. 

2. Gecko Turner - That Place By The Thing With The Cool Name If I were king of the world there would be no more war because we would all be too busy dancing to Gecko

3. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear With a novelist's eye for detail, a golden voice, and Jonathan Wilson as his producing partner in crime, FJM strikes again. Turning his withering gaze on himself as much as the American landscape, no one can make you laugh until you cry (and vice versa) like the former J. Tillman. And if there's a better performer hitting the stage in 2015, I'd like to know about it. 

4. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly Much has already been written about the complexities of Kendrick's masterpiece but let's not lose sight of its simpler charms, such as the fact that it is the most groovalicious hip hop album in quite some time. Give some credit to George Clinton and the Brainfeeder crew of Flying Lotus, Thundercat and Kamasi Washington. But the star of the show is always Kendrick, a true virtuoso rapper who has made more than the most of his voice, which is not a naturally beautiful instrument. Believe it or not, I think he will only get better as he matures away from his focus on using dysfunctional relationships between men and women as a central metaphor for power and control. 

5. Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass As a fan of Matthew E. White's cosmic Americana for the last few years, I was pre-disposed to like Natalie Prass's debut, which was produced by him and features the brilliant cast of characters from his own albums. However, I did have to fight through a slight overreaction to her chirpy vocal quirks to get to the core of her greatness. It was worth the journey, though, to connect with her rock-solid songwriting, which finds common ground between Stax and the great American songbook. There's also a toughness under the vocal delicacy that keeps it from effervescent into the ether.  

6. The Amazing - Picture You Elegance and reserve are not often on the list of psych-shoegaze virtues but this Swedish quintet emphatically make the case for them on their third album. The long songs gradually reveal more of the band's depth and versatility with each listen. Guitars are the main focus, but the production eases in organ, horns, strings and woodwinds in a most beguiling way.

7. SWR Vokalensemble - Italia Marcus Creed leads the talented singers of the SWR in an intelligently programmed selection of Italian choral music with captivating results. 

8. Jamie XX - In Colour I don't care for the XX but I loved We're New Here, Jamie's full-album remix of Gil Scott-Heron's final work so I thought I'd give this a try. Gosh am I glad I did! Aggressively hip, kaleidoscopic and alternating between melancholy and joy - sometimes in the same song - this is easily the electronic record of the year. Guest appearances by XX colleagues are brief and work well in this context but I think Jamie has more fun without them. Good times

9. Patrick Watson - Love Songs For Robots Watson has always been an expert at creating moods but on his latest he sustains one across the whole album. I think of the album as one long piece, a sleek and cinematic epic, so lush and gorgeous that your neck hairs will be permanently tingling. Glorious stuff. 

10. Matthew E. White - Fresh Blood White is no stranger to lush textures himself and follows up 2012's Big Inner with another deeply felt set of songs. He's got some of Curtis Mayfield's touch for the dramatic, both in the way he deploys horns, strings, and backup singers, but also in the way he cares so much about people and their connections. He's one of the good guys

11. BADBADNOTGOOD with Ghostface Killah - Sour Soul In which the Toronto-based post-jazz trio hook up with Wu-Tang mainstay Ghostface and create a collection of noir-inflected tracks that don't compromise the agendas of either party. Ghostface sounds invigorated, spitting gritty tales over horns and strings  and BBNG go all in on embracing their dark side. The best hip hop album no one is taking about. So I'm talking about it. 

12. Missy Mazzoli with Victoire and Glenn Kotche - Vespers For A New Dark Age Night is falling in Missy's world, too, so grab on and soar the heavens on the wings of soprano angels. 

13. Ryley Walker - Primrose Green Dazzling acoustic player Walker plies his trade in some of the sun-dappled territory marked out by Tim Buckley on such albums as Happy/Sad and Blue Afternoon - a realm not visited enough in my opinion. 

14. Leonard Cohen - Can't Forget: A Souvenir Of The Grand Tour I'm not 100% sure why, but I have found Leonard Cohen's latest albums to be no more than intermittently satisfying. For every great song like Nevermind (now the perfectly doomy theme for season two of True Detective), there are a few that seem too self-regarding. It's as if he got so caught up in being LEONARD COHEN that he couldn't just be himself. This album, an unusual hybrid of live takes of old songs, new songs recorded at soundchecks, and covers, has completely cracked the code. He's in terrific voice and his band is with him every step of the way as he transforms such classics as Field Commander Cohen and Joan Of Arc while introducing witty new gems like Never Gave Nobody Trouble. Somehow it all works together for his best collection since Ten New Songs. 

15. Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL - Mad Max Fury Road OST George Miller's surprising return to brilliantly brutal cinematic form was ably assisted by Holkenborg's smashing score. Like a cyborg Wagner, Holkenborg welds electronics and symphonics into unstoppable heat-seeking missiles of sound. You might want to be careful about driving under its influence. 

16. Noveller - Fantastic Planet Sarah Lipstate wields her guitar and a raft of electronics to explore the tributaries left by the innovations of Fripp and Eno in the 1970's and Glenn Branca in the 1980's. Beautifully atmospheric

17. Pond - Man It Feels Like Space Again Mojo Magazine docked these guys a star for being too weird. If I need say more, I'll just refer to the 3-D production, sly melodies and their supremely rhythmic take on neo-psych.

18. Bob Dylan - Shadows In The Night This may be Dylan's most atmospheric album ever, wandering the dark corners of Tin Pan Alley in a hand-picked selection of songs associated mainly with Frank Sinatra. Dylan's engagement with the clever lyrics of another era have smoothed out his voice and brought out a delightful wryness in his delivery. The production is a minimal, charcoal sketch surrounding Dylan, who stands firmly in the spotlight. Old dog, new tricks - yet again. 

19. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit The Aussie treasure returns with her first official full-length and slays with her carefully observed story-songs. She also plays a mean guitar and drives the band harder when it's called for. She's great live, too - catch her if you can. 

20. Ibeyi - Ibeyi These Parisian twins are descended from Cuban musical royalty. Based on this stunning debut, their deeper roots in Nigeria are also not too distant. Yoruba rhythms and themes collide with contemporary hip hop-based production and Ira Gershwin-influenced lyrics, all delivered as if it were no big deal by their heavenly voices

The new Apple Music has 19 of the 20 albums here - give a listen to a playlist of songs

Spotify has 18 of the 20 - listen below.

What's topping your list?

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