The best of 2015: albums you need to listen to before the new year
Kendrick Lamar, Young Fathers, Faith No More: The List's music writers pick their favourite albums of the year
With three of our writers bagsying To Pimp a Butterfly for their choice, you could argue that Kendrick Lamar won 2015 with his insanely popular third studio album. Scottish music has been as top-of-the-game as it always is – Young Fathers killing it with White Men are Black Men Too, while Kathryn Joseph knocked it out of the park with her SAY Award-winning Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I’ve Spilled. Our writers have chosen their 2015 faves and will argue to the death (probably) to defend them. Here’s what they have to say …
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
To Pimp a Butterfly is a profoundly complex album, with a range of narratives, themes, concepts and metaphors expertly woven together by Kendrick Lamar from start to finish. The rage inherent in Lamar’s animated lyricism is often combined skilfully with pointed political commentary, evident in album highlight, ‘The Blacker the Berry’. Such aggressive yet powerful lyrical protests are reminiscent of the political activism and defiance of Public Enemy or even the jazz-infused satirical poetry of Gil Scott-Heron. But the album also delves into more vulnerable spaces such as the emotionally frantic ‘u’ and it is this affecting sense of variation that truly makes TPAB stand-out as a musically sophisticated, landmark album, not just of the year, but of the genre.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
'You hate me, don't you/You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture' spits Kendrick Lamar in 'The Blacker the Berry', the ferocious attack on racist America that brings To Pimp A Butterfly to its devastating climax. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates' essential book Between The World And Me, Lamar's album speaks to the Black Lives Matter movement, fusing nuanced social commentary with unflinching self-examination, Musically expansive, the album takes in g-funk, panoramic soul, and several shades of jazz, bringing uplift with the Isley Brothers sampling 'i'. A masterpiece, Butterfly is the pinnacle of a great hip-hop year.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
No other album has come even vaguely close this year. Kendrick has created art which is both aesthetically brilliant, and theoretically fascinating. It makes me want to both dance, and write essays about it’s lyrics, as it somehow manages to explore something as abhorrent and important as racism, whilst offering a celebration of race. This is man who is making some of the most important music and art today, demonstrating an intellect and linguistic ability superior to us all. Whilst black men are being murdered on the streets of America by their own law enforcement, I think To Pimp A Butterfly is not just a stunning record: it’s a fundamental piece of cultural expression which will be looked back on as defining a generation.
Faith No More – Sol Invictus
Nearly two decades after their supposed swansong, FNM re-emerged with a succinct, focused, ten-song collection that – in defiance of received wisdom regarding band reunions, comebacks and zombifications – ranks alongside their best work. Combining peaks of full-on raging intensity with a more subtle, poignant, piano-led aesthetic, this is the sound of notoriously protean musicians continuing to evolve in any way that takes their fancy. It peaks in majestic fashion with ‘Matador’, possibly the biggest, boldest and most curiously elegant and affecting song they’ve ever written. Sol Invictus has barely left my ears all year, and only becomes more and more richly rewarding with each spin.
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
I Love You, Honeybear’s success lies in its status as arguably one of the most lyrically powerful albums of 2016. Josh Tillman’s devilish sardonicism perfectly encapsulates the futility of life in the 21st century, somehow making us laugh at our own incompetence in the face of it. It exposes the inseparable but rarely talked about relationship between anxiety and sex, and how such basic emotive forces dictate our lives in the context of modern consumerism. Tillman questions; Why do we make the seemingly irrational decision to put feelings of love and the like before all else? He doesn’t answer, but acknowledges the beauty and the folly in our choice.
Young Fathers – White Men Are Black Men Too
A stunning second album that barely pauses for breath whilst taking on race, class and the rest of the world in a track-by-track rebuttal of the idea that pop music must be tame. Young Fathers’ sophomore release sees them continue their quest to redefine pop, leading by example with a set of intelligent, carefully layered songs that dare to challenge the listener. It’s a more confident – and arguably better quality – record than their Mercury-prize winning debut Dead, delving deep beyond the surface level subject matter of a standard pop album whilst producing, in tracks like ‘Shame’ and ‘Rain or Shine’, some of the catchiest songs of 2015.
Kathryn Joseph – Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I've Spilled
Kathryn Joseph is described on her bandcamp page as 'prodigiously talented and criminally underrated', but this year, it feels like that crime has been brought to some justice. In June, Bones You Have Thrown Me And Blood I've Spilled won the Scottish Album of the Year Award, and deservedly so. This debut is raw yet refined: full of affecting piano work and heartbreaking lyrics. 'The Bird' is perhaps the best known track, after Joseph collaborated with Scottish Ballet on the video, and there is uplifting escapism to be found within 'The Crow', but it is 'The Blood' which exemplifies the nature of this album: quietly stirring and utterly unshakable.
Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool
After a brace of feral rock singles Wolf Alice appeared to be pinning their hopes to a grunge revival. But 'Turn to Dust', the opening track on their stunning debut My Love Is Cool, came outta leftfield. A lilting folksy ballad that proved WA could do quiet, considered and fragile. The perfect rock ambush, building up the pressure so when 'You're a Germ' or 'Giant Peach' finally hit they pack even more punch. A rich rewarding ride that shifts tempo but still feels coherent, and via a series of roaring live shows Ellie Rowsell has proved herself one of indie rock's most enigmatic emerging stars.
Beach House – Depression Cherry
My favourite album of 2015 has got to be Beach Houses’ Depression Cherry. Compared to Teen Dream and Bloom, this is a darker kind of Dream Pop and feels like an organic progression – mellower, with more distortion, whilst retaining their signature bittersweet sound throughout. The album/LP cover is made entirely of velvet (best idea ever!) for you to caress when having a good old sob to the stirring, sorrowful ‘Beyond Love’ and ‘Days of Candy’, whilst lead single ‘Sparks’ offers energy and atmosphere. An incredible yet understated album – it’s easy to lose yourself to the dizzying and melancholy Depression Cherry daydream.
Holly Herndon – Platform
Holly Herndon is a California-based musician whose aesthetic appears to be miles away from 2015's unplugged romantic heroes such as Julia Holter and C Duncan. But like them both, she's had schooling (one of her teachers at Mills College was Fred Frith) and her laptop-based music is no less emotional than theirs, coming as it does from an intimate experience of technology. Platform blends Herndon's own voice with sampled sounds from the internet and all manner of clicks, beeps and tones, creating something that's rigorous and beautiful as well as visceral and worrying: the thing in the machine is not a ghost but a living body.
New Order – Music Complete
The needle-in-a-haystack job of whittling down a year’s worth of international artistic output to a single record is no job for the indecisive, especially when we had so many strong contenders notable for their politics (Kendrick Lamar, Young Fathers, Sleaford Mods), their beats (Jamie xx, Holly Herndon, Helena Hauff, The Orb) or their sense of homegrown cultural confidence (Errors, C Duncan, Kathryn Joseph). But what did I listen to most? New Order’s ninth album proper was hard to resist, the first time in a couple of decades their music’s earned that description; a lithe and joyous homage to Paradise Garage disco, Hacienda house and the joy of the synthesiser, a sound very much of the moment. The evidence seems to suggest that Gillian Gilbert’s renewed presence is key to this band at their best.