Every year I finish my albums of the year and condense my favourite 5 into one blog post for easy access.
Every album on this list is worth listening to and they aren’t in any particular order with the exemption of the album of the year which is at the end of the list. So give my reviews a read and tell me what you think.
All the albums are available on a Spotify playlist linked at the bottom of this page so if you want to listen to them whilst you read please do so:
Albums of the Year 2015-Deafheaven: New Bermuda
New Bermuda opens with a throbbing bed of electrical disturbance mixed with church bells, sounds we associate with two separate worlds. In the electrical you feel fear and danger. In church bells you feel grandeur and beauty. Both sounds do share one connection though. They’re symbols of power at its highest level, sounds of things which shouldn’t be trifled with. It’s a confident position for the start of any album as it needs to be matched by the music, I’m happy to say Deafhaven not only manage to match but surpass these lofty aspirations. As a torrent of distorted guitar and machine-gun speed drumming crash their way into the mix, quickly joined by the guttural screams of vocalist George Clarke. We begin to hear a 45 minute thrill ride of operatic proportions.
Over the records playtime we are treated to five tracks none of which are shorter than eight minutes. This allows for the composition to progress and develop repeatedly throughout their duration. The intensity of Black Metal will calm down for whole minutes as the distortion is replaced by thick reverbs reminiscent of shoegaze acts like slowdive. This ebb and flow between the heavy attacking aggression of Black Metal and the soft contemplative quality of Shoegaze allow both to accentuate their strongpoints.
This is a sound Deafhaven have been developing in their previous works and on New Bermuda they craft the two genre into tracks effortlessly. They become perfectly blended counterpoints rather than conflicting forces. Each is given its time in the sun but structured uniquely on every track to achieve different results. On the track “luna” the Shoegaze sound is used as breakdown however on “Baby Blue” it as used as an opener providing a place of serenity before the crushing wave of power hits home, reminding me of an extreme variation of post rock.
Production choices are also interesting throughout, The slow fade on the opening track replacing the band in full swing with a single piano melody is very ambitions. On first listen came across as abrasive but within the context of the album it provides a perfect pallet cleanser for the entrance of the second track. The vocals are also mixed in with the guitars rather than the focus of most of the tracks and this is a novel choice, giving instrumentation more prominence as multiple guitar lines battle it out.
The album winds down with the final track “Gifts for the Earth”. Its acoustic rhythm guitar and electric lead guitar give a strong air of finality that sends the album it off into the sunset.
At Its peak New Bermuda is some of the Harshest most aggressive music i have heard this year and this is given even more weight by having softer edges. It manages to straggle a line between several genre and create something fresh and exiting by doing it, bringing myself and fans of Progressive rock, Shoegaze and Black metal along for the ride.
Albums of the Year 2015-Kamasi Washington: The Epic
You couldn’t have named Kamasi Washington’s debut album as band leader any better. The Epic manages to be an all-consuming gargantuan effort of Jazz spread over 3 hours and multiple discs of playtime. Not only epic in scale but also instrumentation, Kamasi has brought together a large collection of musicians from the LA jazz scene and allowed their talents to shine through on the record, together as a large unit.
Although covering quite a few areas of the jazz world the album stays true to the genre. Rather than incorporating other genre to create something new the album sounds very close tho the works of artists from jazz in its heyday. This is a very hard thing to do because by focusing your sound around the likes of John Coltrane, Myles Davis, Grant Green etc. You set an incredibly high bar to draw comparison, requiring the musical chops to do this history justice.
Luckily the musicianship on this album is of the highest calibre, at least twelve musicians worked on this album and all are on top forum. Arrangements are complex and layered, mostly lead by the brass section of saxophone, trombone and trumpet. These compositions always feel live and can vary in structure and arrangement as elements of free jazz and more authored pieces mix with each other throughout. It’s able to do this because of The Epic’s long playtime.
The music has the time to try out different styles, ruminate on them and allow the listener (time permitting) to get lost in it. There’s just as many catchy melodies on here as there is technical soloing. I can honestly say that anyone who has an interest in Jazz will find a track on The Epic they will love, as it covers so many bases.
Although we do drift around different styles of jazz there is a constant sound that grounds the album together. Pads of organ and vocal beds provide an underlying cosmic feeling reminiscent of some early psychedelic music. This mellow sound allows a variation of styles from smooth to free jazz to intermingle with each other. Giving enough differences between tracks to keep the work interesting throughout its entire playtime. A few Vocal lead tracks are peppered throughout the album which add to this verity, keeping the work fresh throughout.
The Epic manages to go back to the golden era of Jazz and replicate it with great talent and style. It showcases the skills of many artists and session musicians that are in the background on a lot of modern popular music and bring them to the forefront in their own right. Collaborating to create three albums worth of fantastic material that will appeal to fans of the greats from the history of jazz and hopefully bring new listeners along for the ride.
Albums of the Year 2015-Onehotrix Point Never: Garden Of Delete
The first artist to ever make it onto my list two years in a row. Danial Lopatin aka Onoeohtrix Point Never is always someone I look forward to hearing, because his music comes from such a unique place. Although his influences are recognisable, the way he morphs and structures them is distinctively his own. With each album he develops this sound, pulling it in different directions and adding new instrumentation with refreshing results.
Garden Of Delete comes from a far darker place then his previous work R Plus Seven. Although R Plus Seven had its sinister moments they were lurking in the background. Garden Of Delete brings them into the forefront, making you confront them head on. Allot of this sound is influenced by Chipspeech vocals, the main new addition to his musical palate. In several Interviews he has talked about using the Plogue software chipspeech which emulates vintage style speech synthesisers. It’s a key player in garden of delete, used on almost every track in one way or another and has greatly shaped the instrumentation outside of the software itself.
By its very nature vintage speech synthesis is pretty cryptic, harsh and at times undecipherable. Rather than being a weakness OPN has turned it to a strength. Taking influences and instrumentation from other genre that compliment this kind of vocal delivery. Guitars thrash with distortion, jingle with plucky delays and synths choke with big blocks of noise reminiscent of sounds heard in several Metal sub-genre. This matches the speech synths which mimic Metal music on tracks like “I Bite through it” and “Sticky Drama”.
In the final Track “No good” the vocals start to approach R&B before being ripped apart with heavy sampling. Elements of EDM are also there, the opening synths on “I Bite Through it” are a perfect example of a sound one step removed from a modern rave. Proof that OPN has added this style of production to his skill set. In its softer moments the album has elements of Baroque and Ambient music. All these different sounds and textures are mixed in with each other in unlikely ways, layered onto of each other or viciously cut between to constantly keep the listener guessing.
Trying to explain whats going on in his music is futile because it doesn’t fit properly into any traditional form or style. Instead the music works best when you just go with it on an emotional level. OPN may not make music in a traditional sense, however he plays with the characteristics and our preconceptions of music. At times these can be disorienting and unnerving like on track “SDFK” where a quite minimal piece is interrupted by a drum pattern close to Industrial music. At other times it can be playful like on the track “freaky eyes”. Where a single guitar note that sounds like the opening to a roaring solo from the likes of Van Halen is held on its own, toying with your expectations until he moves onto something structurally entirely different. It keeps you constantly guessing as to what’s going to happen next. Confounding your expectations whilst also at the same time connecting with you emotionally. You can go from anticipation to euphoria and into fear within 16 bars of a single track and although hard to comprehend the music gives you allot to think about on repeat listens.
This album is a toy box of novelties that somehow works as a whole. Playing with your toys as a child you can imagine a world where both a teddy bear and an action man can exist and go on adventures together. Although both these objects are completely different sizes and made with different materials they can exist in their adventures because of our imagination. Garden Of Delete has this feeling of imagination, creativity and playfulness in spades and will continue intreague, joke, play and develop for me on repeat listens for many years to come.
Albums of the Year 2015-Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell
The beginning of this year was quite slow going for great records but Sufjan Stevens seventh studio album stood out instantly and has continued to stay a strong contender throughout the rest of the year, easily making its way onto my top 5.
Carrie & Lowell is a very intimate piece of work in every way. The larger scale electronic sound heard in a lot of his other work has been stripped down to simpler compositions which match his intensely personal lyrics, reminiscing his past and mourning people who have passed on. This intimacy also comes across in a lot of the production. The wispy vocals often sound like they were recorded when the emotions rather than the technical requirements were right and this manages to capture something far more human throughout.
The instrumentation, although sparse is given a lot of room in mix to provide poignancy. Thick washes of reverb are used liberally throughout the whole album to the extent that the effect becomes an instrument in itself. Turning harsh fast piano and guitar playing into wide open textures that reside in a numb dream of nostalgia. This sound is the cement throughout the whole album, grounding every song within as a complete work. Individual tracks don’t stand out for me, instead they merge together. Becoming the feeling of the record which always subtle, beautiful and softly spoken.
The album ends in a lush soundscape of instrumentation and humming from Srfjan Stevens and as the sound slowly drifts away into infinite silence were greeted with catharsis. It’s in that silence where the album manages its crowning achievement. Deep feelings of self-reflection and solidarity with the artist become the remnants of what is truly a fantastic piece of work.
Album of the Year 2015-Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly
On first listen and before I even started to enjoy or get my head around To Pimp A Butterfly I knew it was going to appear somewhere on my end of year list. Now many listens later, it not only stands out as the best album this year but would easily fit on my best of all time list.
The instrumentation on this album was the first thing that stood out to me. Kendrick Lamar has managed to gather a collection of incredible musicians to create a hybrid genre that celebrates the history african american music. Soul, Funk, Jazz, Hip Hop and R&B are all fused together in a way that is unique to this album.
Although these types of genre have been used in rap previously, the majority of the time these elements were sampled to create a very structured bed for the rapper. On To Pimp A Butterfly they are living, exuberant pieces of music that weave in and out of the vocal deliveries. Complimenting and respecting each other, allowing both the time to shine within the track.
This is a sound that could only come from a collective effort between all musicians on the album. Working together within the same environment. The whole sound feels organic and requires a great deal of restraint from Kendrick. In lesser hands (especially in Rap music) big egos would stand in the way of this style of collaboration, because it requires the release of some control from the main artist over the album. It’s clear that for Kendrick the message is more important than any individual throughout the album which allows this creative freedom.
Although the lyrics are often extremely personal and deal with Kendricks battles with self-worth, fame, success, poverty, gangster lifestyle and religion they manage to provide a strong and honest look at society and how ingrained racism is within it. He achieves this by having a deep understanding of himself and others, This is clearly a man who battles with his own thoughts and feelings on a daily basis and grapples with them throughout the album. On tracks like “Blacker The Berry” they are balls of rage pointing and venomous, on tracks “Alright” and “I” they are positive and uplifting feelings of beating adversity. The album also goes into the deepest areas of depression with the track “U” which shows Kendrick as a drunken suicidal mess. All tracks push forward interesting messages with layers of depth that reveal themselves on repeat listens subverting the expectations of the listener.
Every element of each track has been carefully thought about to suit the lyrics. From the genres blended together, to the production of the track. Each of which has been curated by a wealth talent including some of the most recognisable names in the industry. These producers and featured artists are always there to contribute to the sound of the track rather than just be a name to put on the album sleeve. This powerhouse of different talent manages to work within the album due to a strong curator. The conflicting styles of producers only clash when it is the desired effect and always result in a positive outcome.
The album is structured arround a poem that develops throughout, one sentence at a time. Kendrick will recite the poem up to a point before a few tracks related to the most recent sentence play and as the album continues more is revieled untill the poems completion, just before the albums denouement. This provides a great way to centre the album around a collection of themes, the structuring of which is brilliantly managed. Tracks about his personal struggles and the weight of oppression are shrugged off with powerful positive messages of hope before doubt starts to set back in. These feelings cycle betweeen tracks over the entirety of the album.
It’s this rollercoaster of emotions and how they are portrayed lyrically and musically that keeps the album fresh throughout its 79 minute play time. As the final track “mortal man” arrives Kendrick admits his aspirations of following the footsteps of his idols, but also brings to light that our idols are human and can make mistakes. It’s up to us as an audience to accept them as humans as well as heroes. He asks the same of us, will we be there for him? He admits his faults openly and aims to be better. It’s this one last track of catharsis that sums up the personal themes of the album before its final political end, which arrives like a great twist in a film.
Concluding the poem he recites throughout the album he then starts to interview Tupac Shakur about his beliefs and struggles under a bed of free jazz. This interview was recorded twenty years before the release of To Pimp A Butterfly and manages to portray to the listener that things haven’t changed. The issues of poverty and inequality with african americans are still as prevalent today as they were twenty years ago. Other reviews have commented on how this album has managed to arrive at the right time, portraying post-Ferguson emotions of anger and despair. I would argue that it says far more. That the events of the past two years are only the otcome of a continous struggle that has been on breaking point for many years and the album does this in a way that’s beautify poetic.
The album concludes with another poem relating to its title which ties the politics and the personal together, once finished Kendrick asks Tupac his thoughts on the poem to which there’s no reply. The question hangs there in infinite silence, leaving the listener with the question in their own heads. A question I always contemplate for several minutes after the album has finished.
As a white man from a small town in England I am far from the culture Kendrick is talking about and yet by the end of this album I have an empathy for its people greater than I ever have before. Kendrick Lamar is an Artist in its purest form, by expressing his life and situations openly with passion and belief he has managed to create something that only great art can achieve. A connection with me as the listener that breaks down the boundaries of culture and beliefs. To humanity in its purest form, our emotions.
To Pimp a butterfly Is hugely ambitious in every aspect, A main stream album that takes risks many alternative acts wouldn’t and manages to achieve them all with such clarity and purpose it leaves me more astounded on every listen. It its a pure expression from a single artist whilst also being an incredible collaboration between musicians and producers to the highest of standards. It manages to handle both being political and personal without ever becoming self-indulgent or condescending and leaves the listener questioning their own feelings and empathizing with a man, his culture and the greater society as a whole. It’s no contest. To Pimp A Butterfly is the album of the year.