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Top 50 Albums of 2015

on December 02, 2015, 12:00am
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Wilco Star Wars album surprise free30. Wilco – Star Wars

In hindsight, it was a pretty simple solution. Turns out all Wilco had to do to neutralize the colossal expectations of a new Wilco album — expectations that very likely bore some responsibility for that frustrating, not-quite-there inconsistency that loomed over the band’s prior two albums — were two things: Kill the expectations (by literally telling no one that it’s happening) and challenge the criteria of an “album.” Star Wars had no campaign, no release date, no price tag, no respect for these silly things. Star Wars had hooks. Star Wars had fuzzy Fender Champ amplifiers. Star Wars had fun, and Star Wars happened because its creators felt no obligation to make it. Within 10 minutes of it showing up unannounced — the fourth track, to be precise, a five-minute crescendo by the invincible name of “You Satellite” — it was already clear that this was a band with no quotas or deadlines to meet. On Star Wars, Wilco worked in their own time, and it worked. –Steven Arroyo

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Holly Herndon - Platform album29. Holly Herndon – Platform

In some ways, Holly Herndon’s second studio album feels like a spiritual successor to Oneohtrix Point Never’s 2013 LP, R Plus Seven. Both records mire in anxiety, shredding voices into startled fragments and glossing them over with a digitized stew. But while OPN keeps a decidedly apolitical stance on his work, Herndon interests herself with the dangers and the capability of hyperconnectivity. Platform ruminates on power, examining the ways that technology can consolidate it among already privileged groups. It also looks at the ways in which affective labor — especially feminized labor — becomes undervalued and exploited in the age of the immaterial. But Platform doesn’t set a heady bar. Herndon’s electronic grooves run as steady as her convictions, and she arms her latest work with a healthy helping of play and humor. For every melancholy meditation on inherent human worth (“Unequal”), there’s a cheeky ASMR roleplay (“Lonely at the Top”). Herndon knows that beauty can be political, and the beauty she achieves here only bolsters her visions of a freer future. –Sasha Geffen

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Drake - new mixtape28. Drake – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late

A lot of people used to laugh at Drake. He was the dude from Degrassi, the sad-sack rapper, the guy sitting courtside with a lint roller. It’s getting harder and harder to laugh. The 6 God had himself a year: He savaged Meek Mill, wallpapered the Internet in dancing memes, and teamed up with Future for a project that somehow didn’t sink under the excessive weight of their combined star power. But the key to his impressive 2015 was the excellent If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Tellingly, the record totally embraces the braggadocio that he used to soften. Instead, you’ve got songs like “Know Yourself”, exposing the beastly glowing core. He starts out already a “Legend” and becomes the “6 God”. He’s not trying to win you over, powered instead by undeniable swagger and confidence, and, as a result, wins you over even more. There are a few sappy, sentimental moments (we are talking Drizzy, after all), but for the most part, this is the kind of stuff you’ll want to boom while riding around your city, darkness falling, gritting your teeth and nodding along. –Adam Kivel

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Braids - Deep In The Iris album27. Braids – Deep in the Iris

Made in various bucolic locations across North America, Deep in the Iris is Braids’ sunniest record, their third album and their second to be nominated for the Polaris Music Prize. The Calgary trio give their songs more room to breathe and their hooks more space to swell on Deep in the Iris, making it more accessible and welcoming than the dense, hermeneutic worlds of Flourish // Perish and Native Speaker. But as its album art indicates, Deep in the Iris also emerged from swirling maelstroms of emotion – much of it bruised and raw, all of it deeply human. Take “Miniskirt”, the album’s standout track and lead single. Much has been made of its condemnation of slut-shaming and defiance against gendered double standards, but what of the overwhelming pain in its bridge, where Raphaelle Standell-Preston sings of surviving family trauma? She reaches deep within herself and comes up with seething, wounded images: “All our boxes on the lawn/ Women’s shelter for nine months/ Cross the street to the church/ Pray confusedly about what hurts.” It’s in moments like these that you realize drawing open the curtains for sunlight wasn’t a mere option for Braids: it was a necessity. –Karen Gwee

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Social Experiment Surf26. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf

Ever since he dropped Acid Rap in 2013, Chance the Rapper has continued to establish himself as a populist for hip-hop heads by releasing all his music for free. Late last year, the Chicago emcee teased a new music project called Surf, which finally arrived in 2015 after his band the Social Experiment posted upbeat jams like “Sunday Candy” and “Wonderful Everyday: Arthur” (which remained a standalone single). For Surf, it was actually bandmate Donnie Trumpet who took the lead on the record. Boasting a genre-crossing blend of funk, soul, jazz, and hip-hop, the album exemplified how hip-hop artists are increasingly incorporating live bands into their recordings and performances, while also highlighting the variety of sounds brought to the table by Chance’s crew. “We’ve been trying to take in all these cool, different outside cultural experiences,” Chance explained to Billboard, “and make that into a free listenable project.” Surf’s surprise release as a free download through iTunes — the first of its kind — netted over half a million downloads in its first week. –Killian Young

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New-Order-Music-Complete-album25. New Order – Music Complete

It’s unusual that a band ever crafts an exceptional album 35 years into their career. New Order pulled it off while trying to convince listeners of their new rhythm resurrection. (If you recall, the ever-venomous Peter Hook exited stage left while the ever-gifted Gillian Gilbert returned after 10 years of motherhood.) As such, Music Complete swells with a renewed sense of urgency, tightly wound with a belief that there’s always something brand-new to unravel. The album changes shape delicately, until you’re not so much lost in the music as living in it. “We are forever moving, like the dancing of the flame/ Life is so unstable, always changing, it never stays the same,” a world-weary Iggy Pop proclaims in a spoken-word narration fit for a psychiatrist’s couch. Fear is a great instigator, the worry your fire will burn out or stay the same, and Bernard Sumner uses it to create a wild and witty art-rock statement built out of stray details, like the guitar chord that revs up the foundation of “Academic” or the subtle drum shifting seamlessly into swirls of rock stadium-ferocity during “Nothing but a Fool”. “Singularity” sucks you in through the electronic wires, and you’re running along them like a character in a video game. It’s their passion that makes the loudest bang, and New Order command the simple pleasure of uplifting dance music. –Lior Phillips

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Carly Rae Jepsen EMOTION album24. Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION

A marvelous art pop artifact, Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION has some of the same certifiable Top 40-ready tunes that helped the Canadian pop singer breakthrough with Kiss (like the title track and “Gimmie Love”), but it mostly tries on sleeker, alt-leaning production with great success. Her voice has a bubbly quality to it that makes almost everything sound innocent, but in the lower registers it can communicate anything on the emotional spectrum, from longing to despair. E•MO•TION shifts from universal everygirl anthems to more personal writing with mature(ish) themes on a dime. It’s sonically diverse and sometimes emotionally dense. There’s a lot to unpack, but it still functions well as a standard dance pop record, too. –Sheldon Pearce

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Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon23. Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon

This year made plenty of room for the pensive singer-songwriter, and sprinkled in among Father John Misty, Sufjan Stevens, Natalie Prass, and plenty of others, we met Tobias Jesso Jr. Standing at 6’ 7”, Jesso’s physical presence looms much larger than his earnest, shy-guy persona. For its part, Goon taps into music’s inexplicable ability to sound the same as much of what has come before yet carry a unique personality that makes it feel fresh and present. In “How Could You Babe” and “Just a Dream”, we hear a McCartney-like sweetness and purity that explains much of Jesso’s allure, but below the surface, we also find endearing imperfection. Just listen as his voice cracks at the top of his register or loses a tiny hint of grace when it’s forced to flutter; these are not flaws, but gradients in the honesty that make each song feel quintessentially independent. As his list of songwriting credits grows — check out 25s liner notes — Jesso will no doubt be a staple of ballad culture for years to come. –Kevin McMahon

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Disasterpeace It Follows22. Disasterpeace – It Follows

A long time ago, it wasn’t rare that most horror films featured a terrifying score: Psycho (Bernard Herrmann), The Omen (Jerry Goldsmith), and Halloween (John Carpenter) all won most of their scares simply by having a signature soundtrack. Some, like William Friedkin (The Exorcist), George Romero (Night of the Living Dead), and Stanley Kubrick (The Shining), wisely pieced together classical compositions or warped stock music to add their respective spine-tingling chills. Today? It’s typically a copy-and-paste job that underwhelms at best — which is why David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows grabbed us by our jackets last winter and tossed us into the aisles. Electronic composer and songwriter Disasterpeace, aka Richard Vreeland, dropped dozens of NES consoles into hell and pulled them back to deliver the most frightening score the silver screen has experienced in years. There’s something to be said about his use of 8-bit material, the way it subverts our most comfortable escapes, crushing us with its claustrophobic dread and aggression (see: “Heels”, “Old Maid”, “Company”). Yet similar to Carpenter’s work on Halloween, there are a number of tranquil moments that are blissfully melancholy and hypnotically paranoid (see: “Jay”, “Detroit”, “Playpen”). Disasterpeace has undoubtedly influenced a number of composers here, and horror fans should rejoice. Or maybe cower.  –Michael Roffman

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Deafheaven - New Bermuda album21. Deafheaven – New Bermuda

Deafheaven keep getting mentioned in lists of best metal bands for people who don’t like metal, but New Bermuda proves that the San Fransisco outfit are in it to expand the genre, not reach outside of it. Many non-listeners assume that the metal world is entirely driven by darkness, all grit, grime, and sludge. Sunbather was such a crossover because it used its post-metal and shoegaze tendencies to bring out some of the prettier shades of black in the genre’s palette, gloriously soaring through the sky. There’s some more of that soupy quality to the follow-up, but there’s as much swampy depth here as there is ethereal beauty. From the black metal punch of its opening, to the Metallica-esque sweep of “Baby Blue”, to the relatively straightforward ’90s crunch of “Gifts to the Earth”, New Bermuda explores the outer limits of metal’s reach, only to prove that those “outer limits” aren’t limits at all, merely presumed borders that George Clarke, Kerry McCoy, and co. wisely disregard. Deafheaven faced a remarkable challenge in trying to follow one of metal’s biggest crossover successes in years, and did so with a bold, experimental, challenging album that should still widen their audience even further. –Adam Kivel

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