I wish that Top Tens could contain more than ten, because in many other years, some of these records would easily fit snugly into that tier of glory. Alas, such a concept is a paradox that defies maths itself, so they’ll have to make do with the Top Sixteen, which is still not to be sniffed at.
The War on Drugs
A Deeper Understanding
As sonically lush as 2014’s wonderful, wonderful Lost in the Dream but a little less rigorous in design, The War on Drugs’ fourth album is an hour-long soundscape to get lost in. Adam Granduciel’s perfectionism remains integral to the group’s steady success, and the finishing touch that brings many of these cuts in to land is that they sound so aurally enveloping, every element fitted and polished just so. Although as a full-length it’s less unified and cohesive than its predecessor, A Deeper Understanding is an album composed of stunning moments: a picturesque voyage in which magic frequently spills forth like a stunning sight appearing from around a bend. ‘Thinking of a Place’ shimmers like a road stretching on forever, baked under a low and heavy sun; ‘In Chains’ and ‘Holding On’ summon stadium-sized joy from their E Street crescendos; and album highlight ‘Pain’ is five-and-a-half minutes of pleasure. His platitudes may occasionally waft by without leaving much of a mark, but when Granduciel pours gusto into a lyric like “I resist what I cannot change”, it’s more than enough to get the job done. Call it highway music, call it dad-rock, call it a tastefully-done nostalgia fest which blends vintage rock subgenres (soft, psych, winding) into one lovingly curated package. Whichever way it’s diced, A Deeper Understanding sounds gorgeous.
“I’m moving through the dark.”
I See You
The xx are enjoying themselves! Seemingly stunned into creative paralysis after the gargantuan success of their debut, it’s refreshing to hear the tentativeness that plagued Coexist has been thrown to the wind in favour of a bolder step out of the gloom. With additional production duties handed over to Rodaidh McDonald, Jamie Smith’s skillset comes to the fore, his breezier instrumentals in turn bringing the best out of his bandmates. ‘Dangerous’ and ‘On Hold’ are the sounds of the trio savouring the chance to lock into a groove together, swaying in the sunshine rather than mumbling from the shadows. That’s not to say I See You exists in an emotional vacuum: Romy Madley Croft’s ‘Performance’ and ‘Brave For You’ find her leaning into distress (the latter is a shining tribute to her deceased parents) to draw strength, while Sim takes the lead on ‘A Violent Noise’ and the gorgeous wash of ‘Replica’ to address his own weaknesses and struggles with alcohol abuse. The immaculate sound of the record is matched beat for beat by these assured vocal takes, and what emerges is evidence that the trio have relaxed into a new understanding of themselves as a unit. Their acknowledgement that lightning can’t be rebottled has left them creatively liberated, and brought them to a fine place.
“Test me, see if I break.”
The Horrors’ fifth is their strongest front-to-back creation since their sophomore gamechanger Primary Colours realigned all expectations resting on their shoulders. With Paul Epworth at the controls and coaxing the group into glossier territory, V successfully blends the Horrors’ classic staples (motorik pulses, moody psychedelia, space-rock squalling) into a vibrant display built on punchy melodies. Opener ‘Hologram’ judders and groans without shrinking away from the earworms it’s founded on, Faris Badwan’s voice imbued with a little more thrust and menace as he keeps his eyes on the middle-distance. It sets an accurate precedent for the group’s most accessible collection yet, which concludes with one of the Horrors’ career highlights – and tune-of-the-year contender – ‘Something to Remember Me By’. A wide-open surrender to their anthemic impulses, it’s a thumping work of sun-drenched majesty; a fitting finish for this triumphant chapter in the band’s chronology.
“Let’s leave this ordinary world.”
Listening to Drunk is like tripping through Thundercat (alias Stephen Bruner)’s very own PlayStation game, one dug out of a dusty shoebox housing knackered GameBoy cartridges, a few smashed bongs, and graphic novels worn to pieces. Few albums sound as idiosyncratic as this, the work of an auteur whose technical flair is countered brilliantly by his own love of pop culture, soft rock, and fart jokes. Drunk is a ride unlike any other, swerving from rapid-fire whimsy (‘Uh Uh’) to twinkling, weightless glee (‘Bus in These Streets’), while taking in troubling sights along the way. He casts anxious glances over his shoulder to the cops patrolling his block (‘Jameel’s Space Ride’), frets over his own mortality and that of his friends, and the fractures in his psyche wrought by the tensions surrounding American race and class (‘The Turn Down’). As such, the sound of retreat into a private world is sympathetic, and while Bruner does throw out the occasional barb to the wider world, Drunk is a largely sweet and escapist vehicle: a sticky-eyed phantasmagoria that blends the virtuosic with the absurd. With Thundercat’s constantly enjoyable presence and some friends along for the journey (Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, and Kenny Loggins himself), Drunk has been one of the most intoxicating states to exist in this year.
“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
For the magnificent live shows, the pithy commentaries, and the album itself, LCD Soundsystem’s comeback has been totally justified. American Dream lives up to the project’s rich past without feeling derivative or short on fresh ideas. Sure, the LCD coterie sound a little less goofy than they used to, but the long-term gains in the power of some of these songs more than makes up for a little less footloose fun. James Murphy’s oft-improvised broadsides at encroaching age, emotional haircuts, and DFA co-founder Tim Goldsworthy (chronicled in the whomping ‘How Do You Sleep’) are full of bite, and even when the emotional wiring is called into question by the frontman’s tongue-in-cheek manner, there’s no resisting the beautiful bombast of a crooner like ‘Oh Baby’ or the headlong rush into the glorious pile-up that closes ‘Call the Police’. As Murphy himself knows as well as anybody (as evidenced on the haunting ‘Black Screen’), heroes are disappearing alarmingly fast in this increasingly detached world. Thank goodness then that some are able to return, and give us exactly what we were hoping for.
“My love life stumbles on.”