The Best Albums of 2015

I'm about ready to let the past year rest and start looking forward to new music (Kent, Radiohead and LCD Soundsystem are all supposed to be dropping albums this year).
So, saying a very belated final goodbye to 2015, here are my ten favourite albums of the last year.
10. Blur, The Magic Whip
Less experimental weirdness, more just happy to be working together again, Blur came back from a twelve-year album silence with a sweet, lovable collection of songs that mine from just about every era of the band's very varied past. The result is scatterbrained, but very satisfying.
Essential tracks: Lonesome Street, New World Towers, Go Out, Pyongyang, Ong Ong
9. FKA twigs, M3LL155X
An EP of only five tracks is at a natural disadvantage against albums, but this EP is brilliant enough to make its way onto this list. Louder, weirder and more direct than her previous releases, M3LL155X (pronounced "Melissa") establishes FKA twigs as a unique artist, and by far the best R&B artist working right now.
Essential tracks: Figure 8, In Time, Mothercreep
8. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Carrie & Lowell is an almost unbearably personal album about death, loss and family. Its songs are quiet things made huge by solid arrangements, beautiful harmonies and the best lyrics Stevens has ever penned. Listening to this album feels borderline obscene, as does writing about it, but it's simply too good to shy away from.
Essential tracks: Death with Dignity, Should Have Known Better, All of Me Wants All of You, Fourth of July, John My Beloved
7. Majical Cloudz, Are You Alone?
When Majical Cloudz change, they do so in tiny increments. For one thing, most songs on Are You Alone? have actual choruses, which already sets it apart from 2013's Impersonator. The songs are also slightly warmer, and less I-am-staring-into-your-very-soul intense. For the most part, however, they stick to what they do best: slow, emotionally potent synth pop songs that unfold piece by piece with every repeat of the core vocal melody. So far, the formula continues to yield wonderful results.
Essential tracks: Disappeared, Control, Silver Car Crash, Change, Downtown, Game Show, Call on Me
6. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
Just in time for their first album in ten years, I discovered Sleater-Kinney. I worked my way through their back catalogue (seven albums between 1995 and 2005), and they pretty much immediately became one of my favourite bands. No Cities to Love is not their best effort, but it's a very worthy addition to their discography, and at a time when actual rock music has mostly disappeared or gotten very boring, it is absolutely essential. Carrie Brownstein is still one of the best guitarists in the world, and Corin Tucker's voice is still a massive force of nature.
Essential tracks: Price Tag, Fangless, Surface Envy, No Cities to Love, A New Wave, Gimme Love, Bury Our Friends
5. Ghost, Meliora
Underneath the makeup, the masks, the fake, campy Satanism and the anonymity, there's a group of Swedish musicians who love The Beatles and ABBA, and have the writing chops to show off those influences. The melodies soar (the explosive vocal harmonies on 'He Is' hit me every single time), the riffs are tight as hell, and for as grandiose and epic as the music gets, there's always a palpable sense of fun.
Essential tracks: Spirit, From the Pinnacle to the Pit, Cirice, He Is, Majesty, Absolution
4. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear
Josh Tillman decided to make an album about what happens when the ultimate cynical asshole falls head-over-heels in love, and the result is one of the funniest, most romantic albums I have ever heard. The songwriting is varied, and never falls short of gorgeous, the singing is pure go-hard-or-go-home, and the lyrics are the pettiest bullshit and the most beautifully romantic sentiments smashed together. If you get the chance to see Father John Misty live, take it: his balls-to-the-wall intense take on 'The Ideal Husband' is worth the ticket price alone.
Essential tracks: I Love You Honeybear, Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins), When You're Smiling and Astride Me, Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow, The Ideal Husband, Bored in the USA, Holy Shit, I Went to the Store One Day
3. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
To Pimp a Butterfly wants to be The Best and Most Important Hip Hop Album of All Time, and far be it from me to pretend to be any kind of expert on hip hop, but I would say it succeeds (and its placement on this list is in no way meant as an insult to the genre, I swear). Kendrick takes on many different roles, voices, styles and attitudes, to eloquently and thoughtully tackle racism, self-love, self-hatred, survivor's guilt, sex, drugs, gang wars, greed, fame, and just about anything else he has time for over the album's 80 minutes. It's one of the most effective concept albums ever made, and a sprawling epic about black culture.
Essential tracks: Wesley's Theory, King Kunta, These Walls, u, Alright, For Sale? (Interlude), How Much a Dollar Cost, The Blacker the Berry, You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said), i
2. Jamie xx, In Colour
This album will always make me think of where I first heard it, which was London in the springtime. That alone gives it a special place in my heart. I have never been to a rave, but this is basically a mellow love letter to the rave scene, with a stupid banger featuring Young Thug thrown into the mix just for the fun of it. Apart from that (quite fun) sore thumb, it's mostly instrumentals, with three songs with vocal contributions from Jamie's bandmates in The xx. If I have a single favourite thing in music, it's that intangible quality when there's a swell, of voices or instruments or both, that just surges into pure fucking bliss. Those are musical moments to get lost in, and Jamie brings them out repeatedly and expertly on this album, all with the single best production of the year.
Essential tracks: Gosh, Sleep Sound, SeeSaw, Obvs, Hold Tight, Loud Places, The Rest Is Noise, Girl
1. Young Fathers, White Men Are Black Men Too
Young Fathers are hard to pin down, musically. Wikipedia helpfully tells me that their genres are pop and hip hop. There's hardly any rapping on this album, and what little there is could just as well be called "spoken word", or, perhaps more accurately, "shouting". And I can't say I've heard much music this abrasive that I would readily classify as "pop". There are elements of soul, trip hop, indie rock and African influences. Suffice it to say, these are three guys with fantastic voices, singing and screaming their hearts out to music that is both chaotic and uplifting, jarring and life-affirming. There's lo-fi desperation and anger, but there's also sweetness, with songs that are "pop" in the sense that they are insanely and beautifully catchy. Most of all, there's a feeling of freedom, community and joy. I can't say enough good things about this album, and I almost missed out on it entirely (again: Aaron, you are awesome). It makes me happy, and that's why, after a stupid amount of deliberation, and a couple of rewrites, it tops my list.
Essential tracks: Still Running, Shame, 27, Rain or Shine, Sirens, Old Rock n Roll, Nest, Liberated, John Doe, Get Started

The Best Songs of 2015

This list is arriving a little later than expected. It's mostly down to David Bowie dying, making me momentarily uninterested in any music other than his (and, so far, Blackstar is the best album of 2016, no contest). It did give me the chance to come back to 2015 with some relatively fresh ears again, so there is that.
Considering what an extremely shitty year 2015 was for the world, I at least take a small amount of solace in that it was an amazing year for music. Here are my 25 favourite songs of 2015.

25. Joakim Berg & Lisa Nilsson, 'Innan vi faller'
Lisa's mannered kind of voice bores me, but she does harmonise quite nicely with Joakim on one of the more restrained songs he's written in years, and his songwriting is good enough to make it work.

24. Beach House, 'Somewhere Tonight'
Beach House have always kind of sounded like they belong onstage at The Road House in Twin Peaks, but never more so than with 'Somewhere Tonight'. During the wonderful organ runs, I close my eyes and see Audrey Horne dancing.

23. The Weeknd, 'Can't Feel My Face'
One of the biggest hits of the year was a Michael Jackson pastische from a Canadian with the stupidest hair since A Flock of Seagulls. That chorus, though.

22. Blur, 'Go Out'
The best song off of Blur's great comeback album goes for the groove-riding fuzz of 13, which works for me, since that's my favourite Blur album. It's silly and borderline laddish, but it works.

21. Radiohead, 'Spectre'
It's probably a good thing Sam Smith ended up doing the theme song for the latest Bond film, since 'Spectre' is frankly too good for the film it was supposedly written for. A gorgeous, slightly off-kilter piano ballad, it makes me excited for the album they're (hopefully) releasing this year.

20. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, 'The Right Stuff'
I really didn't expect to ever love another song by Noel Gallagher, but here we are, with the best song he's written in 10 years, and one of the most subtle songs of his career.

19. Deerhunter, 'Snakeskin'
A funky, cocky rock song, that sticks out like a sore thumb on Deerhunter's latest album, but beats out the rest with sheer force of personality.

18. EL VY, 'I'm the Man to Be'
Matt Berninger takes a break from The National to form a new project where he gets to holler shit like "I'm peaceful 'cause my dick's in sunlight", and hint at autoerotic asphyxiation. It's glorious.

17. The Pop Group, 'Mad Truth'
The singer is ridiculous, the lyrics are weak, and the groove and production is unassailably amazing.

16. Kendrick Lamar, 'The Blacker the Berry'
The angriest song of the year tackles racism, police shootings and self-hatred, and it's upsetting, a little scary, and so so satisfying.
15. Tame Impala, 'Let It Happen'
A gorgeous synth pop song with some of the best production and a couple of the best riffs of the year.
14. Joanna Newsom, 'Sapokanikan'
No one really writes lyrics like Joanna Newsom, densely packed with archaic and obscure words, references and allegories. This would all count for nothing if she couldn't make them soar, and she absolutely does that on 'Sapokanikan', starting out cute and playful before steadily climbing to a beautiful crescendo.
13. Sufjan Stevens, 'Death with Dignity'
A heartbreaking song that, while never reaching much higher than a whisper, somehow manages to feel enormously loud. 
12. Kurt Vile, 'Pretty Pimpin'
Kurt Vile comes off like the laziest man in music, but he at least had enough energy to write some amazingly hypnotic guitar picking that wouldn't be close to be overstaying its welcome, even if the song was twice as long.
11. Father John Misty, 'The Ideal Husband'
Picking a favourite song from Father John Misty's I Love You, Honeybear has not been an easy process, but 'The Ideal Husband' wins out by being an absolute monster when played live.
10. Will Butler, 'Anna'
It's almost a joke song, but... it's just so fucking catchy.
9. Majical Cloudz, 'Call on Me'
Devon Welsh is a bit of a limited songwriter: there are love songs, there are anxiety songs, and there are friendship songs, and some overlap between the three. 'Call on Me' is a friendship song that might as well be a love song, a song of such intense devotion it's verging on overwhelming. "I am your friend till I lie in the ground", he sings, putting every ounce of emotion he has into it. And who doesn't want a friend like that?
8. The Tallest Man on Earth, 'Dark Bird Is Home'
In 2015, Kristian Mattson finally let a full band into his music, and the results were mixed. On 'Dark Bird Is Home', though, he made it work wonders, by saving the band for the crescendo that the whole song is steadily building up to, and when it finally does come (punctuated by a sigh, and an "oh fuck..."), it's perfect, and the best song of his career.
7. Dan Deacon, 'When I Was Done Dying'
'When I Was Done Dying' is basically The Lion King on ecstasy, an existential journey with a tribal, primitive vibe colliding with washes of electronics. It's a glorious mess.
6. Ghost, 'From the Pinnacle to the Pit'
Anchored by a filthy bass line, this is a tight, theatrical and relentless rock song. I have listened to this song more times than any other song this year, and it is not even close to getting old.
5. FKA twigs, 'Figure 8'
FKA twigs is that rare kind of artist who makes music that feels futuristic, and 'Figure 8' is the best she's ever sounded. The music clicks and whirrs, explodes and then doubles back on itself. It's a powerful listen.
4. Sleater-Kinney, 'No Cities to Love'
I can't quite put my finger on it, but the chorus of this song just hits a sweet spot that makes it into pure ear candy. The snaking, restless guitar lines during the verses don't exactly hurt, either.
3. Jamie xx, 'Loud Places'
Speaking of ear candy, this song has it in abundance: there's what sounds like the clinking of bottles, the seamlessly sampled chorus, the production on the drums when they swell for said chorus, and then there's the guest vocals from Romy, the best she has ever sounded. This song should be mandatory for all weddings, funerals and dance floors.
2. LCD Soundsystem, 'Christmas Will Break Your Heart'
A Christmas present from one of your favourite bands is always a nice thing, but when that band supposedly broke up nearly five years ago? When the present is one of the best songs they have ever released? And when the song is closely followed by the announcement that, yes, they are reforming, touring and making another album? That's a Christmas fucking miracle.
1. Young Fathers, 'Shame'
The most uplifting song to ever feature the word "cunts". Seriously though, I might have a tendency to lean towards sad-sounding songs, but there's nothing like a song that puts a smile on your face and makes you go "fuck yeah", and no song in 2015 did more of that for me than 'Shame'. It's an unstoppable fist-pumper, a loud, chaotic mess, and it is, no question, my favourite song of the year. Aaron, I still owe you a beer or three for turning me on to these guys.

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