In what has become the only personal blog post regularly written since 2012, I’m excited to share my top 10 favorite albums from the year.
End-of-year lists are odd. I’ve long given up trying to position music I enjoy as objectively better than others. I’ve dropped the passive aggressive nature of forcing specific genres on those who don’t reciprocate the same level of interest.
But—I do enjoy sharing for the simple pleasure of potentially being the conduit to something new for someone else.
With that, here are the top 10 albums I really enjoyed in 2015. The rubric is simple: albums are ordered by how much I enjoyed the album as a whole.
If even one friend or colleague or reader stumbles across a musician or album they hadn’t considered, and it becomes a gateway to a new sound they never thought they’d enjoy, then I am happy.
01 Jamie xx — In Colour
Wasn’t really close this year, which is saying something, because 2015 was a fantastic, deep year for music. Rena and I listened to Jamie xx’s first full-length album more than any other album without question. We had a chance to see him live in Seattle at an outdoor summer concert the first week we moved here, which added to the personal mystique.
The album never lost steam. The highs are euphoric; there are no lows. It gets your body moving without being staid club music with cheap bass drops. In Colour is so complete it competes with many of my favorite electronic albums of late, from Four Tet to Caribou. Jamie has truly arrived as one of the best of the best DJs in Britain if not the world.
02 Deerhunter — Fading Frontier
I was not a fan of 2013’s Menomena. I get why people liked it, and Bradford Cox’s explanation made sense. But it lost the melodic charm that often only Deerhunter can provide. Simply listen to “Helicopter” or “Desire Lines” or “Agrophobia” to understand the simplistic power of Deerhunter song constructions.
Which is why Fading Frontier was so interesting. This was a pole opposite sound; the closest thing to pop Deerhunter has been or likely ever will be. It is soft, melodic, suburban sound, and that’s okay. It could have easily been a disaster. Some Deerhunter fans hate it, probably simply because they tried to do it.
Interestingly, while the first few songs got all the public press, it was the second half of the album which gripped me. “Ad Astra” and “Carrion” weren’t just album hits, both I considered some of my favorite songs of the year. “Carrion” in particular is classic Deerhunter, and may be their best song to date.
03 Martin Courtney — Many Moons
It’s no secret my love for the band Real Estate and its members. They are without question my favorite group of the last 5 years, especially when you consider the wonderful side projects of each band member.
Martin Courtney, the lead for Real Estate, published a full-length solo album during a Real Estate off-year. In many ways it has the same Real Estate sunniness to it, but with more Americana, which was a surprising pleasure. Martin had an interesting blend of Real Estate softness and Tom Petty loudness. I loved most every song on the album, and appreciated the periodic guitar jams to break up the 3-minute templates.
04 Floating Points — Elaenia
Later in the year Sam Shepherd published his first full-length album as Floating Points. In many ways, Sam is considered to be the “smartest” producer in Britain. His music is complex and complicated. A mix of genres, but mostly a break-through take on modern jazz in a DJ setting. It’s Gatorade for intellectual wanna-bes.
Floating Points isn’t a new project, though. He has been publishing music for years, but always in a drip format. A single here, a 3-song EP there. Never has he done a full-length album until Elaenia. I wonder if it’s because he takes the music so seriously and didn’t want to publish an album that wasn’t its own story. With Elaenia, he accomplished that.
For anyone interested in what the great New Orleans jazz musicians of the 1920s would make if they were millennials living in London today, check out this album.
05 Khruangbin – The Universe Smiles Upon You
Came across this band completely by accident. For years I’ve been meaning to listen to more jazz. I get it—jazz is the foundation of so much music; it’s one of the true expressive art forms uniquely birthed in America; it’s where most sophisticated music fans end up. I need to get there at some point, right? Well it has been hard, almost intimidating. Jazz as a genre I seek out consistently escapes me.
Which is why Khruangbin is so interesting. It is not straight jazz. I saw it described as Thai-Brazilian-Disco-Jazz. The distant mixture is not hyperbole: the band puts together many flavors of beat-based jazz without it sounding like a junior high experiment.
06 Sufjan Stevens — Carrie & Lowell
What an amazing return from Sufjan! Most of his fan base has yearned for him to drop the experimentation and continue to produce the beautiful epics only he can create. It’s true: many believe the perfection of Michigan or Illinoise is a sound only Sufjan is capable of. When he veered towards new musical direction in the mid-2000s, we all had to put up with the inevitability that we’ll never get another work of art like them again. He must have felt the pressure too.
Carrie & Lowell isn’t the same style or exact sound as his Midwest state motif, but it was a return to beautiful, heartfelt music that could have only truly came from Sufjan. Once you learn the backstory—Carrie is his mother and Lowell his step-dad; Carrie died in 2012, so this album is a tribute to her—you realize how incredible the story strung throughout the album can be. His mom left him as a child. She had mental issues (bi-polar?). She moved to Oregon and became estranged. They met up again. Then they lost touch again. He resents her, but he loves her. You feel the emotion in every song.
We had a chance to see him live in Milwaukee last March. The best concert of the year, and the best since we saw Beach House in the same city a few years earlier. He played the entire album from start to finish. No covers, no additional music. Just the album. Mid-show, he paused and told a story about his grandmother’s funeral which brought the entire venue to tears. There isn’t a musician like Sufjan, and we’re all blessed to have him.
This would have been higher in the list, but honestly the second-half of the album, while lyrically moving, was musically just-okay.
07 My Morning Jacket — The Waterfall
It’s good to have My Morning Jacket back. It feels like an eternity since Okonokos filled my earbuds for months on end. (2006 to be precise!) Their work since then has been good, but never captured the unique-yet-familiar folk/jazz/hillbilly/rock sound that their mid-2000s work had. I’m very happy to report The Waterfall appears to have captured the magic from a decade ago.
The reactions on this album have been split, especially among My Morning Jacket fans. Some felt it was a weak reversion to something we’ve all heard many times over. Others praised the flawless execution on just that familiar sound. I personally fell in the latter camp.
08 Gun Outfit — Dream All Over
A band which has been around for a while but I’m only discovering this year. It’s sound surprised me. We listened to it while driving the rural Cascadia landscapes of our new Pacific Northwest home, and it was a perfect fit. Gun Outfit is the rock’n’roll folk you listen to when driving to a bar in the woods.
09 Kurt Vile — b’lieve i’m goin down
Kurt has grown into a reliable source of annual music. His 2015 album is one of his better works since early early Kurt Vile. “Pretty Pimpin'” played on-repeat for a solid week in my headphones. I’m starting to wonder if Kurt has officially taken over as torch holder of modern Americana. I can’t think of anyone else who produces the sound as well as him as consistently as he does.
10 Tame Impala — Currents
Okay, fine. I’ll put Tame Impala in the top 10. Just know that I didn’t want to. I really really didn’t. In fact, I’m slotting it in as number 10 only so you can listen to it and decide for yourself, but also to give me a reason to quickly rant about why it doesn’t deserve to be here.
Kevin Parker is a turd.
The band leader is about as egocentric as a modern musician can come. He’s the worst parts of Jack White, Wayne Coyne, and Bono. There are countless stories in the music journalism sphere which detail his feuds, his belief that his music is the best, his protectiveness of his copyright, his sell-out tendencies, and how he in general sees the world with him at the center.
Who knows how much truth there is to that. The fact that I didn’t have any immediate links on hand to give you a reference to that conjecture demonstrates it could all be rumor, anyways. I could be just another unchecked Internet voice echoing an old story.
But when I listened to Currents and the album’s story, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. All the songs are literally about him, and how hard his life happens to be because of others. It’s pretty wild to put the album through the lens of the rumors above.
And yet… the post-production is really good. Like best-of-the-best good. The songs are perfectly rendered. The sound produced is potentially the best on the whole list. That’s why I am torn, and leave it up to you to decide if this is a classic album worth raving or something we’ll all forget about in a couple years.
A few other singles I loved
Mac Demarco – “No Other Heart”
The undisputed king goofball of troll indie rock.
Pender Street Steppers – “The Glass City”
Huge fan of Jack J, the Vancouver-based DJ on the Mood Hut label. This is a group project on the same label is a part of.
Jack J – “Thirstin”
Speaking of Jack J!
Shamir – “On The Regular”
Oh man, Shamir. This single technically came out at the end of last year, but was on an album release in March. I love this song. Shamir is great because he is himself and doesn’t care what you think. I like people like that.
American Wrestlers – “Holy”
Really love these guys. This album would have been my #11. It’s like if you combined Wild Nothing, Bear in Heaven, and 1988 rock’n’roll.
Tobias Jesso – “Without You”
The new, good Ben Folds mixed with an homage to 1970s ballads? Fun.
Julia Holter – “Sea Calls Me Home”
She’s really fun.
DIIV – “Dopamine”
DIIV’s 2012 release Ochin is one of my biggest oversights in the last several years. I missed out on that album and now it’s one of my go-to punkie-indie sounds. “Dopamine” is a teaser single for their new album coming out next year. I can’t wait.
Dam Funk – “Free”
Not what you’re expecting.
Neon Indian – “Slumlord”
Tycho Sunrise Mix
I still think there is something interesting about SoundCloud and the future of music. DJ mixes are the new radio: it’s how we get trusted curation of new music. Tycho’s sunrise mix at Burning Man (LOLs, festival not with standing) is a good example of a fun mix.
Jamie xx – “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”
I loved “Gosh” the most, but this was his most popular single. It’s explicit, featuring Young Thug. Here is the 1960s song he sampled played at the Capitol Hill block party Rena and I attended. Life is fun.