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Top 50 Albums of 2015

on December 02, 2015, 12:00am

tame impala currents05. Tame Impala – Currents

You’ve got to give it to Kevin Parker: “Let It Happen” is one of the boldest album openers of the year. The first song off Tame Impala’Currents is nearly eight minutes long, and it begins with a sound that seems like the whoosh of an antiquated teleportation machine. Within seconds, it dips into a bassy groove pillowed by synth, and Parker’s Lennonesque voice emerges. “Let It Happen” is meticulously arranged, but it never sounds inorganic. The stunning midsection where the song loops itself unto infinity? Its genius is enough to bring you to tears.

“Let It Happen” is a grand statement, but rather incredibly doesn’t overshadow the rest of the album, which presents listeners with more sonic peaks for Tame Impala. They’re heights that Parker seems to scale effortlessly but belie days of mania cooped up in a studio; crests that make Lonerism, a triumph in its own right, seem almost shambolic by comparison. And though the guitars are easier to pick out than some would have you think, there’s nothing like “Elephant” on Currents.

But if soul and R&B influences give us songs like “Eventually” and “The Less I Know The Better”, who are we to complain? Occasionally, Parker, so in lockstep with himself, slips up — the robotic monologue of “Past Life” and the erotic female sighs on “‘Cause I’m a Man” are more meh than marvel. Currents is imperfect, but Parker has nevertheless reached another level of musicianship. What comes next for Tame Impala is anybody’s guess. –Karen Gwee

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oneohtrix point never garden of delete album04. Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete

It used to be that you could listen to an Oneohtrix Point Never album and turn your mind off, allowing the minimalist blips and tones to do the work normally reserved for neurons. Daniel Lopatin has always challenged his listeners to make sense of his altered reality, but he hasn’t always insisted on it. In this respect, at least, Garden of Delete marks a departure from the abstract soundscapes of 2013’s R Plus Seven and the five other studio albums that precede it.

The Brooklyn-based composer’s latest — and possibly his most distinctive — effort exists in the same territory as a David Lynch film. It defies the logic of traditional interpretation, even as it taunts the critic with a convoluted narrative that involves an alien named Ezra, a fictional “hypergrunge” band called Kaoss Edge, and dozens of other extra-musical snippets that suggest an overarching portrait of … something. The music itself is pieced together with the same level of obsessiveness, though the beautiful collapses into the ugly so often that it can start to seem haphazard.

Garden of Delete is a frustrating album, but it’s frustrating in a way that feels vital and even seductive at times. The over-processed vocals and vast curtains of static hide the things we’d normally interpret as pleasurable in the context of a rock or pop album, namely the melodies. But the melodies are there, and they’re as vibrant as ever. Lopatin just makes you dig through the shit to get to them. –Collin Brennan

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Grimes Art Angels

03. Grimes – Art Angels

Don’t call Claire Boucher’s music cute. The mastermind behind Grimes and Art Angels uses sugary melodies and hyperactive backbeats, no doubt, but summing up her work as cute — the catch-all for “good, but childishly unaware of the big leagues” — brushes off the skills she clearly owns. Boucher is beyond the big leagues. ‎She’s mastering the trade, cutting it with the sharp scissors of an editor, and never once turning her head back to see how others fare in her wake. Art Angels is her revamp of Top 40 where unforgiving dance and appreciated (not appropriated) K-pop perfect the trade.

Empowerment comes with total immersion. Boucher plays every instrument, mixes every track, and produces every song on the record. A section could use violin? Fine, she’s got time to learn it. The cheerleader chants of “Kill V. Maim”, freeing chorus of “California”, or guttural howls on “Scream” all prioritize authenticity over fleeting trends. So when she ditches conditional love in favor of self-worth, not out of pain, on “Flesh Without Blood”, Boucher sets up the record to be one with no limitations, even if it means pushing herself to overcome both physical and personal struggles.

Boucher places equal emphasis, if not more (depending on what speakers you’re listening through), on the beats than her vocals, refining her talents as a near-perfect producer. Sure, Art Angels is somewhat lengthy at 14 tracks, but each listen leaves you wanting more of what Boucher has to give: self-confidence, determination, and the liberating freedom that comes with that. –Nina Corcoran

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Sufjan Stevens Carrie and Lowell

02. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

In 2010, Sufjan Stevens released the great but hard-to-swallow album Age of Adz and found many of his biggest fans turned off at the swap of guitars and banjos for synths. The album felt as brave as a public meltdown, admirable in the artist’s decision to fight his demons with whatever weapons he wanted, but still worrisome in that no one knew whether the Sufjy of old would ever return. Then, this year, he did, turning 180 degrees and making the most stripped-down album of his career, an appropriate move concerning the subject matter: his relationship with and the death of his estranged birth mother, who suffered from addiction and mental illness, and Stevens’ subsequent self-destructive reaction.

Yeah, it’s about as sad as it sounds on paper, but that’s only a small sliver of what makes Carrie & Lowell great. Stevens doesn’t disguise the lyrical narrative, but still interjects poetry and mythology into songs like “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” and “The Only Thing”, finding beauty not in the act of loss and depression that he encounters, but in the survival of it. The record winds up cathartic in its mastery, leading through the stark truths of everyone we love’s mortality, using his own very personal experiences to open windows and back doors for strangers to extract universals. Somehow, it never feels heavy-handed, with moments of hope as common as those of despair, full instrumental swells appearing just when the calm sea of sound reveals the land on the horizon.

And maybe best, Carrie & Lowell comes across like a necessity to Stevens’ own survival, its importance to the artist shared for listeners to reciprocate an essential and deeply emotional experience that grows more precious with time. –Philip Cosores

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kendrick lamar to pimp a butterfly vinyl release

01. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

It didn’t take long for Kendrick Lamar to secure a near unanimous spot atop the rap power rankings. Since he first broke through with his debut independent album, Section.80, in 2011, and its major label follow-up, the critically acclaimed good kid, m.A.A.d city, the year after, the Compton emcee has been riding a wave of influence and praise rarely seen in hip-hop (outside of a certain college dropout from Chicago). In that time, he has emerged as one of the best rappers by any measure or margin, a masterful storyteller with one of the more dexterous flows in recent memory. He has positioned himself as one of the most important voices in music, and his third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is an intricate and demanding masterstroke that will undoubtedly affect the way rap takes shape in the coming years.

A lot has been made of the blackness of To Pimp a Butterfly, which is a complex, emotionally raw work that is equal parts art piece and protest record, and while blackness plays a pivotal role in its storytelling,To Pimp a Butterfly is really more of a religious rebirth for Lamar, a sacrament performed in a hall of jazzy productions that seeks to make penance with God and 2pac alike.

His piety plays in the fringes — battles with Lucifer, confessionals, acknowledging God as a protective agent — acting as his answer for the issues plaguing society, spilling out in the minute details of his writing. Lamar is among the most prolific technicians of this era, unwinding ridiculously knotty yarns into an array that paints bigger pictures — like a conspiracy theorist’s red string-laced bulletin board in a mystery thriller. On To Pimp a Butterfly, he one-ups himself penning a riveting tale that unfolds in installments like a serial drama.

What really makes To Pimp a Butterfly such a remarkable album are the subtle aesthetic decisions, all of which weave a conceptual tapestry using a funky, Afrocentric color palette: the duality of the suicidal “u” and the hyper-positive “i”; following “u” with the life-affirming “Alright”; the Rapsody verse on “Complexion”; sampling the Isley Brothers and then featuring one; interviewing a long-lost rap legend then leaving that interview open-ended.

Every moment serves a specific purpose constructing the most challenging and rewarding listen of the year. Few albums have been more timely or more deserved. To Pimp a Butterfly is an opus that is both a reflection of its time and now a hallmark of it. –Sheldon Pearce

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