When I was a freshman/sophomore in college, I insisted that my “best albums of the year” lists were unequivocally correct. Whichever top 25 albums I listed were, by all measures, the absolute “best” of the year, no questions asked. With a little perspective, I now know that that was completely ridiculous. The 25 albums represented here are the “best” to me, according to my limited world view. I try to keep that world view as open as possible so that all albums are welcome here. I also try to take into account an album’s importance, reach, and influence on a larger scale. But ultimately, these 25 albums are the ones I loved listening to the most. I immensely enjoyed them, and I hope you did/will too.
We were provided with an embarrassment of riches in 2015. Beloved artists returned with flawless albums (Sufjan Stevens, Sleater-Kinney), artists in their peak pushed the boundaries into completely new territory (Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, Tame Impala), and newcomers hearkened back to classics from days past (Leon Bridges, Natalie Prass, Tobias Jesso Jr.). This was my favorite year for music since 2012 — there were so many songs that would have qualified for this list if they had come out any other year, but the competition was just too much in 2015.
Also, special thanks to Taylor for the awesome cover art.
Before we get to the top 50, here are 15 honorable mentions that it killed me to exclude.
“I have never reached such heights / I feel music in your eyes.”
The ultimate power of music lies in its ability to channel feelings, memories, and emotions. You can be transported back to places you cherish, alongside people you love, at the click of a “play” button. You’re back in the stands at that high school football game, back at that party where you made your crush laugh, back on that road trip you took with your college friends.
Jamie xx knows music has this power. In fact, he knows it so well that his songs don’t just invoke memories — the music is literally about the concept of music invoking these memories. The production on his latest album, In Colour, was inspired by underground London raves in the ’90s, but it’s not meant to actually sound like the trip hop blaring on those club dance floors. In Colour is meant to encapsulate the feelings and emotions associated with going to a late-night rave in the city. The highs and lows, the excitement and the loneliness, the boundless elation and the quiet disappointment associated with a night full of adrenaline and expectations. These aren’t the songs that were playing at that high school football game, or the party, or the college road trip — these are songs that remind you of what you were feeling during those events.
Right in the heart of In Colour lies the musical and emotional climax, “Loud Places.” Jamie xx, who rose to prominence as the backbone of The xx, employs his bandmate Romy Madley-Croft to sing about “[going] to loud places to search for someone to be quiet with, who will take me home.” She also reflects painfully on her ex, who “[goes] to loud places to find someone who will take you higher than I took you.” The subject matter is melancholy, to be sure, but the music itself is uplifting in its wide-eyed wonder. A nostalgic haze hangs over the song, as the various electronic and instrumental elements fade in and out of focus — the rhythmic bells and whistles, the handclaps, the single guitar lick. The bass hums so deeply that it feels like it’s coming from inside your chest, with the thumps of the drum machine as the heartbeat. That build-up of thumps eventually leads to the most perfect, pure element of the song: a gospel chorus breaking through the surface and releasing the tension.
The chorus is a sample of Idris Muhammad’s 1977 song “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This.” The lyric goes, “I have never reached such heights / I feel music in your eyes.” It’s a beautiful couplet that furthers Jamie xx’s meta intentions of paying tribute to music. The chorus is not bombastic or attention-grabbing. In fact, you may not find it special or distinctive at all. But it’s the context that Jamie xx gives the chorus that make it truly special — the combination of crescendoing drums and Madley-Croft’s dramatic “didn’t I take you to higher places you can’t reach without me?” line preceding it, along with the bass, piano, and handclaps that accompany it. These sophisticated surrounding touches are what Jamie xx does best.
That chorus appears three times throughout the song (at 1:01, 2:38, and 3:30). In the first two instances, the piano and percussion are also prominent, competing for space right along with the voices. The third time, the piano and additional sound effects are buried in the mix, leaving room for that beautiful chorus to dominate. Combined with the deep and permeating drum beat, the final chorus provides an enduring moment of musical catharsis. You anticipate it coming, but it’s more subtle than, say, a drop in a Skrillex song. It’s gorgeous and blissful in its subtlety. It’s exhilarating.
Jamie xx feels music in your eyes, and he just wants to celebrate it.
This was a feature that I used to do for the Daily Californian’s Arts & Entertainment blog. I decided to give it life again here. At the end of each month, I’ll post a feature highlighting five quality tracks released during that month.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I think March was the best month for music in years. It was jam-packed. It took everything in my power to keep this post to just 5 songs.
1. Sufjan Stevens: “Death With Dignity”
Sufjan Stevens’ penchant for simple, clear beauty is unparalleled. On his latest album, Carrie & Lowell, Stevens bares his soul about coping with the recent death of his mother, who struggled with mental illness and abandoned him and his family when he was a year old. He ended up spending three summers with his mother (Carrie) and stepfather (Lowell) in Eugene, Oregon, which provided the only real memories that he has of Carrie. Carrie & Lowell opens with “Death With Dignity,” an incredibly pretty song that sets the stage for the emotional depth to come on the album. “Spirit of my silence, I can hear you, but I’m afraid to be near you, and I don’t know where to begin.” The song is full of lyrical gut-punches: “What is that song you sing for the dead?”, “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you, and I long to be near you, but every road leads to an end.”
As far as the music goes, Stevens does what he absolutely does best — laying his quiet, haunting voice over a finger-picking acoustic guitar (and just the right amount of piano touches). At the end, the instruments cut out, leaving a choir of Sufjans, blending their voices together mutedly from a distance. The moment is perfect, the song is perfect, the album is perfect. No hyperbole here. The album really is perfect. Check it out.