Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
The best album of 2015 arrived just over a quarter into the year. The competition was fierce, but almost from the beginning there was little question of To Pimp a Butterfly’s supremacy.
When Kendrick was riding the seemingly never ending wave of props for his debut effort, Section.80, and the follow up that broke him into the mainstream, Good Kid m.A.A.D City, it seemed impossible that he could keep up his level of performance. In both theatre and music, there’s the narrative of the “second night letdown”; Illmatic was followed by It Was Written, Reasonable Doubt by In My Lifetime. None of these records are bad, but the second typically pales to the first; an artist has their whole life to make their first record, and only 6 months to record a second.
But if anything, Kendrick has been slow to put his cards on the table. To Pimp a Butterfly feels like the first time Lamar has ever really gone all out; he’s more vulnerable, honest, and angry than ever on this record. There’s no attempt at nuancing the themes of crime, poverty, and alcoholism in the guise of party anthems, as he does with tracks like “Money Trees” or “Swimming Pools” on GKMC, or the easy-to-swallow ideas of Section.80. To Pimp a Butterfly hits where it hurts. Lamar goes after the government, the gangs, himself, his crew, his fans, the banks, and himself, and does it all in with frequent interjections from a conversation that is revealed in the end to be between him and his idol, Tupac Shakur. It’s a stunning, almost Faustian story of sin, mental reconciliation, and redemption. A butterfly, something so pure and innocent, is pimped; in other words, we see Lamar, a man, destroyed and corrupted by the world around him to a greater extent than we ever did in GKMC; and near the end of the record, we get to watch on “Mortal Man” as he puts himself back together.
Aside from the sheer scope of what he has done, the way Kendrick has done it is equally as important. To Pimp a Butterfly is a monolith of an album, a melange of jazz, funk, rock, and a strange compromise between the anti authoritarian shit-talking of inspirations NWA with the looking-glass introspection of Common. Songs like “The Blacker the Berry” succeed in simultaneously raising a middle finger to the establishment along with a white flag. The duality of “i” and “u” creates a tension between joyful self-acceptance and crippling, bourbon-sipping self-loathing. “How Much a Dollar Cost” takes a simple scenario and turns it into a freezing reality of introspection and judgement. To Pimp a Butterfly, in other words, manages to be more things than almost any other album you could name. It’s density, both lyrically and musically, It’s a true concept album with a running storyline, themes, and narrative. This is perhaps why you might not have heard many singles from it; playing a song off of To Pimp a Butterfly without context is like starting a book in the middle. Tracks like “King Kunta”, a story of an African Prince turned a hype as hell condemnation of rap superstardom, achieved moderate chart success.
But this album, unlike many a record today, was never about the singles. He aimed to be vulnerable just as he was being violent, and he aimed to be mortal just as he displayed an inhuman potential. And by god, he did it. To Pimp a Butterfly is our album of the year, no question.
Björk – Vulnicura (One Little Indian)
In true Cartesian fashion, Bjork hurts, therefore she sings. To that end, Vulnicura is a collage of pain and regrets. The Icelandic artist’s ninth studio album was written and recorded in the wake of her split with American artist Matthew Barney. From beginning to end, the album toils in the emotional aftermath of the breakup; it is honest and forthright to a degree seen more often in a therapist’s office than in popular music. Bjork’s voice works through doubt (“maybe he will come out of this loving me” on “Lionsong”), weakness (“but our bond has broken/My shield is on gone” on “Black Lake”) and mourning (“Is there a place/Where I can pay respects/For the death of my family” on “Family”). Clocking in at just under an hour, the story does not neatly conclude. There is no pacifying resolution beyond the promise of the future. Musically, the string arrangements are achingly moving and co-producer Arca’s treatments are of typical merit. Bjork’s voice does not betray the half-century she has spent on the planet, rather rivalling those of contemporary artists like Rihanna and Adele. Ultimately, Vulnicura is an album of quintessential Bjork styling and for that alone it ranks amongst the best releases of the year.
Beach House – Depression Cherry (Subpop)
Following 2012’s Bloom, Beach House returned with Depression Cherry, reemphasizing the Baltimore duo’s ability to create a lush and eerie sound that is recognizably their own. An album engrossed in its own simplicity, the full instrumentation on Depression Cherry highlights vintage midi keyboards, electric guitar, drum samples, and of course, Victoria Legrand’s alluring alto. With four albums under its belt, the duo is accustomed to creating luxuriant and nostalgic arrangements. The album’s first single “Sparks” brings about a boisterous, cinematic atmosphere with guitar droning behind Legrand’s vocal, while the lyrics illustrate an illusive ‘it’ that vanishes and reappears. Whether ‘it’ is love, happiness, or loss, Beach House invites the listener to recall a single emotion and reminds them of its tidal and recurring nature. The rest of the album follows in a similar vein; Legrand describes it in a Pitchfork interview as a collection of all-encompassing, “giant love songs.” “PPP,” a mid-album highlight, provokes bittersweet remembrance, as Legrand sings “something inside you, it doesn’t sleep well” atop a calm synthetic drum and vibrant rhythm guitar – this is the Beach House we know and love. If the duo is able to do one thing well it is to orchestrate music that provides a soundtrack to the listener’s most intimate and guarded emotions, leaving them in a complete daze of dream-pop perfection.
Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper (Domino)
Panda Bear’s music feels surrounding — like waves that keep crashing on top of you. Even though there’s a slow ebb, you’re always covered by some sonic layer. This remains true in his latest effort Panda Bear Vs. The Grim Reaper. Yet Noah Lennox, the Panda himself, has refined his technique and artistic intent. The crispness of this latest production is an unexpected change from the murkiness of past efforts, but Lennox’s talent for creating intricate sonic landscapes is as apparent as ever. Some songs feel glitchy, like the feeling of trying to piece together disjointed memories. Others are deeply and deliberately tender: “Tropic of Cancer” channels the solemnity that comes with accepting a sad truth, while the contemplative “Lonely Wanderer” suggests a quiet, foggy trek.
Lennox smartly balances the album’s sincere midsection with more upbeat tracks. “Mr. Noah” and “Boys Latin” engage the listener from the beginning, while “Crossword” and “Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker” experiment with elaborate repetitions. Despite great shifts in mood and tempo, intrigue never wavers throughout Panda Bear’s latest release. As per usual, he does not disappoint.
Grimes – Art Angels (4AD)
Up until this November, all we’d heard from Claire Boucher since the 2012 release of her milestone album Visions were two fairly similar tracks. “Go” divided fans: some were alarmed enough by its clubby sound and drop to suggest that Grimes had sold out (because the mark of a sellout is surely releasing tracks for free). Critics seemed less concerned with this idea and were generally appreciative of Boucher’s expanded range. After “Go” came the propulsive and breezy “REALiTi”, which was a little more relaxed but possibly even more catchy. Based on these releases, Grimes’s new album seemed likely to be poppier, more straightforward, and less ambient than her previous work – but nearly as soon as this idea set in, Boucher started referencing punk, rap, screamo, and (perhaps most shockingly) real instruments as inspirations in interviews. On Art Angels, Grimes delivers on the promise of her most commercial-sounding release yet, but miraculously makes her colourful influences feel totally natural in an electro-pop album. The results are exciting originalities like the Shania-meets-Chvrches belt of “California,” and “Kill V. Maim”, an urgent highlight that paints Boucher as chanting cheerleader and Al Pacino the time-travelling vampire in the same few lines. In a music culture seemingly less and less concerned with the indie-mainstream dichotomy, Art Angels feels like a final act of uniting the two camps. (What other album would sample a YouTube video of an unknown guitarist in a penguin mask to make “Butterfly”, a great early-00s-style pop song?) Through her painstaking effort to be totally herself – and to wear her eccentricities on her sleeve – Grimes shows that broad appeal and artistic authenticity can be standout elements of the very same record.
Viet Cong – Viet Cong (Jagjaguar/Flemish Eye)
Punk-rock is deeply rooted in human responses and the emotional impulses that evoke them. Instances when this expression intersects with technical skill in perfect harmony are rare, but when it happens, we get an album like Viet Cong.
Viet Cong’s self-titled debut album is a fine demonstration of post-punk’s intensity. Ambiguous song titles like “Newspaper Spoons” and “Pointless Experience” create an impression of bleakness, but this doesn’t compromise the album’s power. Viet Cong have a knack for coupling the cacophony of post-industrial synthetics with the vibrance of skillful production. Throughout the record, Viet Cong continuously derive beauty from the ugly. This record is air-tight and immersive to the point of claustrophobia. Post-punk has never been executed with such venom and cohesion. Tracks like “March of Progress” have sweeping guitar arpeggios and jolting vocal accompaniment forced along a musical assembly line by trudging, militaristic percussion. Uniting hostility and glee, these artists hold no reservations.
Shamir – Rachet (XL)
For proof that to be ‘pop’ is not necessarily to compromise artistic integrity, just look to Shamir and his debut album Ratchet. On the Northtown, Nevada native’s release, hellaciously catchy tracks are infused with contemporary themes of non-binary sexual empowerment. Recent single “Call it Off” sees Shamir urging the listener to find agency within their relationships. The track nearly demands a tapped toe or a bobbed head, but crucially doesn’t settle for a half-baked message to accompany the music. A similar pattern recurs throughout the album: tracks like “On the Regular” promote originality, while others like “Make a Scene” challenge sexual stereotypes. Fittingly and intriguingly, these ideas are communicated in Shamir’s genderless countertenor. The record draws from a variety of genres which have seen a resurgence of late – R&B, disco – but still manages to sound entirely fresh, with each cut demonstrating the shapings of a hit. Even if Shamir wasn’t on top of the charts in 2015, Ratchet suggests that he could easily achieve this type of success in the future – without changing his voice, his style, or his message.
The Internet – Ego Death (Odd Future)
From the first stomach-dropping bass thrums of “Get Away,” heads sway and eyes close. Earning a 2016 Grammy nod in the Urban Contemporary category, Ego Death is the third full-length release from The Internet since their 2011 debut Purple Naked Ladies. Helmed by Odd Future members Syd the Kyd and Matt Martians, The Internet makes music that seduces and hypnotizes, balancing the groove of classic jazz with a tight electronic production refined over past Odd Future releases. Ego Death is 56 minutes of filler-free deliberate momentum smoothly tied together by Syd’s relaxed vocals with features from the likes of Janelle Monae, Vic Mensa, and Tyler the Creator. There are a number of standout tracks: the seductive opener; “Just Sayin/I Tried;” and fan-favourite “Girl,” written in collaboration with Montreal-based producer Kaytranada. You can throw a lot of genres at The Internet in an effort to define their sound, from trip hop to acid jazz, from soul or R&B to jazz-fusion, but their beauty – as proven by Ego Death – lies in the indefinable space that they occupy in between.
Deafheaven – New Bermuda (ANTI-)
If I had to pick an album to die to, it would be New Bermuda. To be honest, that’s not so unlikely: New Bermuda seems capable of blocking out the sun and starting about the apocalypse. Deafheaven’s third studio album is swirling descent into black metal, woven with threads of calm shoegaze, anchored by relentless drums, frantic hooks, and lots of screaming. If that sounds like a lot to pack into one album, it is. But Deafheaven does it masterfully. Rather than slap pieces together, they combine a thousand abrasive aspects into a cohesive unit of crossover metal, kind of like a beautiful layered bean dip. They take their time, too, like Jamie Oliver would if he were making a beautiful layered bean dip. The album is only five songs long, but each track stretches to eight, ten minutes, allowing the band to carefully create entire worlds. New Bermuda is so complete, smooth, and all-encompassing that everything else fades away. That’s what makes this album so great—it creates an environment where you’re fully immersed in something else entirely, where the emotions you feel are not your own, and where it’s unclear whether the world is going to end or it already did.
Future – DS2 (Epic/Freebandz/A1)
DS2 may not be the best Future album to come out in the last few years, but it brought the rapper back into the public eye. DS2 has become Future’s best-selling album: there’s a good chance you’ve been to a party recently and heard something about “Gucci flip flops”, for example. DS2’s popularity and its release following that of several shorter mixtapes (Monster, Beast Mode, 56 Nights) might suggest a professional comeback of sorts to some, but I see it differently. Future’s music isn’t created to fit into a cohesive album; he just makes music. Record producer Southside put it best: “he don’t plan on doing tapes, he just rap, feel me?”. DS2 just so happens to be Future’s most rounded and marketable offering to date.
Future’s lyrics are multifaceted: a little bit weird, often funny but also almost grimly grounded in reality. Future is a much better writer than he is given credit for; his lyrics build profound images are powerfully direct. Instead of showing off clever wordplay, Future delivers lines like “I float off the world in designer”. Here Future describes the high of drugs with language evocative of science fiction, a famously escapist genre with its imagery appearing often in Future’s work. But this image’s association with the artist’s grim situation is a dark reminder of the futility of Future’s attempts to escape and forget his reality, a realization that somberly and powerfully recontextualizes all of his music.
Ibeyi – Ibeyi (XL)
Listening to Ibeyi’s self-titled debut is nothing less than a cathartic experience. French-Cuban twins Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz, barely into adulthood, introduced the world last February with power and beauty, expressed in an Afrobeat inspired album teeming with nostalgia, grief, and heartbreak. The Diazes voice these emotions eloquently and powerfully in arrangements such as the full-throated, chanting coda to “Oya”. Their harmonized vocals are accompanied by simple chord progressions, driving West African-inspired percussion, and the occasional dreamy synth line (such as in “Weatherman”); all ultimately complement the vocals. It’s no coincidence that Ibeyi leaves listeners in catharsis; it expertly draws inspiration from religious Santeria chants (channelled in “Oya”) and the modernities of soul and R&B to make for one of the most transcending releases of 2015. Singing in English, French, and the native language of their Nigerian ancestors, Yoruba, Ibeyi do both their talents and their roots justice. The album ends with applause and laughter, a charming reminder that Ibeyi are not a brand, nor even characters – they’re two young women standing in a vocal booth, and they’re only on their first release. Even so, it’s no surprise that these women have garnered the attention of the likes of Beyoncé. Ibeyi is power, and will move every listener with its spirit.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
Renowned indie-pop songsmith Sufjan Stevens’s most recent outing serves as a return to his minimalist folk sound which put him on the map to start with. Standing as an homage to his recently deceased mother, the themes of love, death and everything in between make for Stevens’s most emotionally jarring record to date. Along with this, Stevens’s songwriting chops are made apparent in this concise collection of tracks which manage to be complex yet sparse, veering away from any sense of self-indulgence. The final product is a viscerally personal record, which is dreadfully unhappy while remaining enthralling to the listener due to it’s carefully crafted melodies and tortured lyrics.
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometime I Just Sit (Mom + Pop/Marathon Artists/Milk!)
Following a series of impressive EPs (compiled in 2013’s The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas), expectations were high in anticipation of Courtney Barnett’s debut LP. These expectations were ultimately met as Barnett’s collection of effortlessly introspective indie-rock pieces prove to be some of the most thoughtful, infectious, and endearing of the year. Barnett’s charm lies in her lyric-driven writing style: songs are filled to the brim with intricate anecdotes both autobiographical and observational, but they never overwhelm or overshadow the instrumentation.
Young Thug – Barter 6 (Atlantic/300 Entertainment)
Despite his extravagant charisma, rockstar attitude and sharp ear for singles, Atlanta’s Young Thug’s undoing has always come through his full-length releases. While these releases feature stellar individual songs and strong overlaying atmospheres, their run-times of often eighty or more minutes are simply too long, and their individual cuts appear thrown together, failing to create any sort of sequence. Thugga’s major label debut Barter 6, however, an unpredictable and deeply personal record masked by a bleak, Atlanta-inspired trap sound and packaged into a tight 13-song format proves an exception. This record manages to sound cleaner in terms of both sound and sequence, while retaining Young Thug’s signature weirdness, providing him with the perfect platform for him to do what he does best.
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf (Self-Released)
This year we welcomed the Social Experiment’s debut album Surf. The American band consists of the highly acclaimed Chance the Rapper, Donnie Trumpet, Peter Cottontale, Greg Landfair Jr. and Nate Fox. Surf presents a fusion of dance, neo-soul, jazz, and hip-hop that is both soulful and lively. The track “Sunday Candy”, studded with its church choir-like vocals, embodies the soulful vibe of the album. For listeners new to hip-hop, the smooth vocals and experimental instrumentals of this album ease them into the genre like an upbeat lullaby. The incorporation of bold trumpet solos performed by Donnie Trumpet is reminiscent of Kanye West’s hip-hop anthem Late Registration. The Social Experiment revives this branch of hip-hop with a positive message of self-love (I just can’t stay cool, I don’t want to be cool/ I don’t want you to be me, you should just be you) on the track “Wanna Be Cool”. And with the addition of a variety of artists such as Erykah Badu, BJ The Chicago Kid, and J.Cole this album is truly a celebration of the diversity in the hip-hop and RnB community. The Social Experiment stays true to its name, Surf is a fearless and bold hip-hop experiment that deserves a spot on our list. If this uplifting album is what new hip-hop looks like, we cannot wait for 2016.