Favourite Albums of 2015: 5 – 1
[Insert Europe pun here.] Top Five time. What a year. ’nuff said. Let’s do this!
Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear (Bella Union)
(If it’s not too wanky to start by quoting Oscar Wilde…) “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
In constructing the ostentatious persona Father John Misty, Joshua Tillman has revealed more of himself than he perhaps ever could in the solo career under his own name. The character (and ergo, Tillman himself) is occasionally repellent, prone to fits of arrogance, caustic put-downs, and unbridled outbursts that are partly romantic, partly insane (‘The Ideal Husband’squarely falling into the latter during one of the album’s greatest crescendos). I Love You, Honeybear is thus not without its absurdity, and for passing listeners, at times it can sound downright repugnant and inconsistent. Yet dealing in inconsistency seems to be Tillman’s exact intention: skirting cookie-cutter definitions and instead cracking open the messy truth that no one person is defined by a single trait. Across I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman bounds from overwhelmingly soppy to unbearably cynical, cripplingly insecure to self-aggrandising and pompous. In doing so, he displays many clashing sides of himself, and while the overall picture is far from easily comprehensible, it’s much more realistic than the binary self-presentations that are so common in music and beyond. Every one of us is contradictory, never solely defined by a beautiful or ugly side, and Tillman opens up this idea in a manner which is bewildering at first, yet astonishingly perceptive on further listening. I Love You, Honeybear forms a strikingly clever enquiry into ideas of love and the self, while remaining dazzlingly entertaining, from the decadent instrumentation to Tillman’s knack for a knife-in-the-ribs punchline. Tillman finds new ways to explore identity, romance, and authenticity in a thoughtful way, while also delivering a fantastic sequence of some of the year’s lushest arrangements.
“Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity / But what I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.”
To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope)
To Pimp a Butterfly is exhausting, uncomfortable, fearsomely complex, and completely necessary. Kendrick Lamar’s previous output succeeded in affirming the Compton-born rapper as an artist capable of greater nuance and political focus than many of his contemporaries. The bar was set high by 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, but Lamar more than cleared it with its follow-up. Working with a sprawling team of A-list producers, Lamar has crafted a crossover success that hits hard not just as a musical statement, but as a powerful rumination on black lives in a post-millennial America, surveying the violence, hypocrisy and rage that reached boiling point amid the succession of horrific acts of persecution increasingly seen in recent months. Music that’s taken as a successful social critique or commentary often revolves around a protest message, and Lamar’s output is no different. What elevates him to a different league, however, is that his music works as more than reflection: while he doesn’t claim to speak for everyone, his fierce verses articulate the tangled emotions of so many, and have been recognised for their salience everywhere from music awards to educational debates about black culture in America.
From the personal exorcisms in ‘u’ and ‘i’ to bolder attempts to grapple with the broader concerns of a community or a nation, To Pimp a Butterfly unpacks so many complicated factors while always sounding heavy-hitting and coherent. To understand the scale of its impact, simply check the popular breadth it has received in critical and commercial camps – even on this very blog. As this whole list makes abundantly clear, I’m not well-versed in rap music, but To Pimp a Butterfly is so pressing, so unavoidable, so on-point, that its achievement cannot go unrecognised. It offers a profound statement on our times and the futility of defining a single community. The gut-punch that comes at the end of ‘The Blacker the Berry’ is the record’s agonising peak, and as Lamar’s vocal rises to a barely-suppressed roar, all of the fury, sadness and frustration in the face of injustices perpetuated (by the oppressed as well as the oppressors) is so tangible that it’s almost painful to hear. On hearing it for the first time, I had to take a few minutes to catch my breath. Given the album’s reception, it’s likely many others responded in the same way.
“I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015 / When I finish this if you listening then sure you will agree.”
In Colour (Young Turks)
It felt like In Colour was being listened to everywhere – and by everyone – in 2015. For my year at least, it’s formed an inextricable soundtrack to memories of summer and beyond. As well as being the album I have allegedly listened to more than any other this year (according to iTunes at least), there were snippets of its various segments being broadcast everywhere: through the open doors of nightclubs and high street shops, blasted from passing cars or bleeding through somebody’s headphones on a night bus, augmenting adverts on television and the internet, and dropped into between-set music at festivals. Speaking of, I caught Jamie xx’s cavernous set during this year’s Green Man shindig, and the reshuffled running order of In Colour’s tracks shone new light on just how immaculate and engaging each piece is when taken individually. Nevertheless, In Colour is at its most satisfying (which is to say marvellously so) when it can be heard from ‘Gosh’ to ‘Girl’. Drifting dreamily from one room of the club to another, In Colour lives up to its title with a full-spectrum tribute to the UK club scene, incorporating a range of styles in an inventive but organic blend. It’s a love letter to rave culture which still locates the bittersweet tinge that mingles with the joy, the isolation alongside the unity, and in doing so emerges as an inclusive and stirring whole. The softly-spoken beat-maker has stepped a little further out of the shadows with an inescapable but totally escapist invitation to embrace the noise.
“I know there’s gonna be good times.”
Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
Sufjan Stevens’ seventh album is an intimate lament neither heavy-handed nor excessively fragile. For Carrie & Lowell, Stevens corrals a tangle of messy emotions and memories into a beautiful and deftly melodic collection, while eschewing anything close to straightforward catharsis. It’s touching, certainly, but in a way that becomes more acute with each fresh listen, the full depths of Stevens’ emotions only made apparent through familiarity and time. The death of the songwriter’s estranged mother (the Carrie of the album title) found Stevens racked with a fierce swathe of clashing emotions; an intimidating matter to approach, as he frequently references in his lyrics, chiefly on opener ‘Death with Dignity’: “I don’t know where to begin.”
This crucially makes Stevens’ unfathomable pain accessible rather than overbearing, and he unpacks the strands of his grief gently, touching upon feelings of disconnection or references to the mundane amid the emotional maelstrom. “You checked your text while I masturbated,” Stevens mumbles partway through ‘All of Me Wants All of You’, while on ‘Eugene’, he teases brief snapshots of childhood (“lemon yoghurt, remember I pulled at your shirt / I dropped the ashtray on the floor”) from his memory in an attempt to find something worth cherishing. All he can come up with is a general desire for closeness to his mother, which he was left longing for throughout much of his life.
It’s genuinely heartbreaking, but the revelations are sparing in melodrama, instead deployed quietly and with grace. Stevens’ delivery of “fuck me, I’m falling apart” during ‘No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’ is more of an exhalation than a gasp; the sound of a man too exhausted to fully feel the weight on his shoulders. It’s perhaps telling that Stevens entitled the record Carrie & Lowell rather than giving it a more abstract, artistic name. It feels clean and factual, a little detached, but also redolent of a tribute stripped of excesses: modest, dignified, and with much left unspoken. In many senses, that’s exactly what the album is: a small, sad portrayal of grief and guilt, but one which is so balanced in its emotional scope that it still manages to bring a moving degree of comfort.
“I forgive you mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end.”
Divers (Drag City)
For various reasons, I don’t think that Joanna Newsom’s Divers was the best album released in 2015, but I do consider it my favourite album of the past year. Naturally, there’s a difference between what we consider to be “great” works in the arts, and our personal preferences. Truthfully, there’s little doubt in my mind that Kendrick Lamar’s record is the most salient and hard-hitting release of the year, and numerous other albums both featured in and omitted from this list are wholly deserving of high praise. Several have subverted expectations to deliver original works that entertain listeners while also inviting them reappraise the abilities and natures of the artists in question. However, even after reshuffling the bulk of this list time and time again, I’ve always thought that Divers deserved its place at the top of the pile. I still can’t quite articulate exactly why it affected me so; as with The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream, I naturally felt that it was my favourite as the weeks ticked down through November and December.
Put simply, Divers entranced (and continues to entrance) me more than anything else I heard in 2015. From the second Newsom sings of “sending the first scouts over” in the dewy opening seconds of ‘Anecdotes’, a small shiver goes up my spine, and I feel that I’m listening to something uncommonly profound. Newsom sings of Time in its unearthly wonder while grieving over how it ravages all in its wake, pondering both the fate of the wider worlds she envisages around her (some fictional, some authentic), as well as her own position at its mercy. At times, her thoughts can turn fanciful, never more so than during the sci-fi sea shanty ‘Waltz of the 101st Lightborne’, whose narrator proclaims that “Time is taller than Space is wide” amid a tale of love, war, and the dichotomy between natural and artificial landscapes. As with most other compositions here, there’s a great amount to take in, but Newsom’s concerns are grounded in a pathos so perfectly transmitted that the emotional heft cleaves to the heart and mind: a clear-eyed understanding that little will last of us, but in the present there is great beauty to be savoured and preserved.
The musical accomplishments here are just incredible, from the range of instrumentation that Newsom weaves into the sumptuous whole, to the painstaking amount of time she spent overdubbing and re-mastering the songs until they gleam as brightly as they do in their final versions. You can really perceive the effort and attention that was poured into the making of this album. Newsom’s music has been strikingly detailed from 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender onwards, and by her standards, this level of care can almost scan as effortless. However, when placed alongside her peers, Newsom rises above the fray as an artist with crystal-clear vision and the tenacious commitment required to realise it fully.
For a more specific insight into what I loved about Divers – as well as several of the other entries in this list – check out my full reviews. For now, in closing, I’d like to celebrate this album as the one that spun a magic beyond any other this year. If anything even comes close to matching this record in 2016… I won’t get ahead of myself, but it’s safe to say I won’t shut up about it until next New Year’s Eve.
“And daughter, when you are able / Come down and join! The kettle’s on / And your family’s ’round the table. / Will you come down before the sun is gone?”
Posted on December 31, 2015, in End-of-Year Lists, The Music World and tagged Albums of 2015, Carrie & Lowell, Divers, Father John Misty, I Love You Honeybear, In Colour, Jamie xx, Joanna Newsom, Kendrick Lamar, Michael Perry, Sufjan Stevens, To Pimp a Butterfly, Top Five. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.