Wednesday, July 1, 2015

the top album/songs of the midyear - 2015

Last year when I put together this list, I was debating its very relevance. I mean, would it give away what would turn out to be my top albums of the year overall, or would it find an audience at all?

This year, the debate was different: I knew I had to do a midyear review for 2015 because there was so much quality that came out in the front half of the year that I'm honestly a little concerned I'm not going to get a chance to highlight it all. Between comebacks that delivered in spades, debuts that blew my mind, and records that seemed to have an abundance of creativity more than I would have ever expected, the first six months of 2015 have been overwhelming strong, to the point where keeping my list of albums to twelve was insanely difficult. It'll be incredible if the rest of the year keeps up this momentum, but for now, here is my top albums of 2015, thus far:

12. Tetsuo & Youth by Lupe Fiasco - the fight for this slot was intense, and no less than eight albums would have had a more than justified shot for this, including four hip-hop records - it was that strong a year. But in the end, like last year, Lupe Fiasco won out with a few songs that just managed to rise above all the rest. Easily his best record since The Cool, if not better, Tetsuo & Youth shows Lupe at his most focused and yet most abstracted, ditching the preaching for populism and an eclectic blend of instrumentation and some of the best technical rapping skill of his career. With a strong conceptual framework that easily could have proven too off-kilter for many listeners, Lupe managed to keep things balanced and leave me excited for where his exit from Atlantic will take him.

11. Beyond The Red Mirror by Blind Guardian - I have to be honest, I wasn't expecting that the power metal veterans coming up on their third decade of albums could pull this off, especially after my lukewarm at best response to their 2010 release. But Beyond The Red Mirror proved me wrong in spades, operating as a sequel to their 1995 classic Imaginations From The Other Side that might not equal it but is damn impressive all the same. A great power metal record with enough progressive touches and killer songs to back a fascinating narrative, Blind Guardian showed exactly why they're one of the best of the industry, and I couldn't be happier.

10. Hold My Beer, Vol. 1 by Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen - 2015 has been a bit of a slow start for country music, but the biggest story has been the slow, inescapable rise in popularity of the Texas red-dirt country scene. And while Kacey Musgraves stuck with classic country and Blackberry Smoke pushed the boundaries of country rock into psychedelia, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen stuck to the basics and ended up creating something solid as hell with their collaboration. Nothing too fancy, or anything that would produce hits, but sticking to standards in nuanced songwriting, to say nothing of damn great melodies and production. Looking forward to volume two, gentlemen, damn great work.

Before we go on, let's mention seven songs, in no particular order, from albums that just missed this list but still deserve attention:

'Uma Thurman' by Fall Out Boy, American Beauty/American Psycho
'Price Tag' by Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love
'Stonemilker' by Bjork, Vulnicura
'Woman In The Moon' by Blackberry Smoke, Holding All The Roses
'Queens' by MisterWives, Our Own House
'Better Than That' by Marina And The Diamonds, FROOT
'Elan' by Nightwish, Endless Forms Most Beautiful

9. Hand. Cannot. Erase. by Steven Wilson - easily the best of the former Porcupine Tree frontman's solo career, Steven Wilson got there by embracing his knack for great hooks and a psychological deconstruction, exploring the mindset of the observer who walks unseen in modern society. It's a deeply fascinating theme and Steven Wilson goes deep, but he doesn't forget to pair it with stellar compositions along the way that polishes his progressive edge to a glistening shine. Highly recommended.

8. Glitterbug by The Wombats - oh, I was hoping a Wombats record might actually get here, and while I wouldn't quite say Glitterbug is a complete return to form after their debut, it does deliver a killer slice of wildly fun synthpop that has the good sense to ride out the heady rush of the party, but also enough sense to step back before his recklessness ruins his life- and even here, it might be too late. Coupled with a gleaming 80s-inspired sound that doesn't skimp on great melodic hooks and real emotional pathos, The Wombats are back, and I couldn't be happier.

7. In Colour by Jamie xx - the path to come for me to really appreciate electronic music has been a long one, but this year Jamie xx proved an emotionally potent experience could still be wrung from it. Yeah, sonically it's playing in comfortable territory, especially with his guest stars, but with stellar production, great lyricism, and a richness to the compositions that is both varied and colorful, Jamie xx went above and beyond. Or, to put it another way, this album is so damn good, it managed to get on this list despite having Young Thug on it- THAT'S saying something!

And now, at our halfway point, let's highlight another seven songs that were absolutely amazing, but their albums just missed the cut for our list, starting with...

'Ansel' by Modest Mouse, Strangers To Ourselves
'Guantanamo' by Jlin, Dark Energy 
'Heartbreak' by Yelawolf, Love Story
'Something Big' by Shawn Mendes, Handwritten
'Bills' by LunchMoney Lewis, Bills EP
'Tomorrow Never Comes' by Zac Brown Band, Jekyll + Hyde
'A Guy Walks Into A Bar' by Tyler Farr, Suffer In Peace

6. Complicated Game by James McMurtry - the other Texas country record that lodged a slot on this list, James McMurtry's detailed and poignant storytelling about modern adult life and the passage of time is some of his best. Trading lo-fi simmering anger for complicated resignation and musings of what might have been, this is an album that made this list because of sheer incredible songwriting craft, telling such complete short stories that it's hard not to feel empathy for even peripheral characters. And paired with instrumentation that pushed McMurtry's sound further than ever, it's definitely a standout of the year.

5. Algiers by Algiers - it was the debut album I didn't know how much I wanted until I got it, and then I wondered how in the Nine Hells it took so long to get here. Fusing the biblical heft of gospel with the instrumental heft of post-punk, industrial and noise, and the lyrical heft of black America's struggle against systemic racism and biases, Algiers made a record unlike anything I've ever heard, and one that cut deep on all sides. And after weeks of injustice and black churches set ablaze, never has this album felt more powerfully righteous. Strikingly intelligent and pointed, Algiers nailed some powerful theses to the doors of America- let's see how they respond, if they even can.

4. Blurryface by twenty one pilots - this is a polarizing record almost by design, and I know there will be plenty of people who will take issue with me placing it this high on the list. But call it a case of stellar melodies, some of the best hooks you'll hear all year, and writing that steps over and beyond anything twenty one pilots has done before. Improving everything they needed and a whole load of things I never expected, Blurryface is the sort of pop record that'll win me over every time, with the sort of colour and flair that shuns reverb desaturation for tight grooves, nervous energy, and a knack for theatrical bombast they can pull off with remarkable flair. I might not have been won over on Vessel, but Blurryface gets me every time.

And finally, before we go onto our inevitably controversial top three, let's highlight six more songs from albums that missed the list that deserve some recognition:

'To Die In L.A.' by Lower Dens, Escape From Evil
'The Only Thing' by Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
'Something To Believe In' by Fashawn ft. Nas, The Ecology
'What Kind Of Man' by Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
'Pageant Material' by Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material
'Under Grey Skies' by Kamelot, Haven

3. To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar - I can already see the comments. 'Wait, Kendrick's not at #1? What kind of jackassery is this, he calls himself a music critic?' Well, here's the thing: as much as I consider To Pimp A Butterfly the most important and transformative record of this year in terms of its sound and incredibly well-articulated message, an album that's bound to go down as a hip-hop classic, it wasn't quite my favourite. That's not to say it wasn't exceptional - Kendrick has kept topping himself with album after album and the fact that 'Bad Blood' was the song that went to #1 and not 'King Kunta' is a goddamn crime - but as a whole there are moments that didn't click as well as I liked, and I found myself having less of a desire to revisit it throughout the course of the year beyond very specific tracks. Still, if you're one of the few hip-hop fans on the planet who have not taken in this album, I can't recommend it highly enough. However, you might want to check out one more first...

2. All Hands by Doomtree - I'm in awe of this record. Doomtree might be a cult act that made one of their most impenetrable records to date in terms of production and wordplay, but that doesn't mean it's not worth far more time and attention. Every time I relisten through it I find more to love in its abrasive, rough-edged production and every member spitting with an intensity and energy that's infectious and intriguing to decipher. The hooks are stronger, the atmosphere is stellar, the technical wordplay is impeccable, and the thematic undercurrents have a ragged activist core that hits me every time. And yet, it's still not my number one pick. That...

1. I Love You Honeybear by Father John Misty - this album is nearly a perfect 10 for me. Dead serious, if it wasn't for one song, it would be the first record I'd give a perfect score. The hooks are stunning, the instrumentation is gorgeous, the production is lush and rich, and the sheer number of quotable lyrics with real pathos runs high as Father John Misty takes us through the arc of accepting a real relationship and the responsibilities that come with it. Oh, and it's frequently funny and heartfelt in a way that allows you to connect with the pretentious preening jackass who faces the end of single life, with a self-awareness to laugh at him and with him all the same time. As of the midyear of 2015, I Love You Honeybear by Father John Misty is my #1 album. 

But, we still have six more months to go, so let's see what happens next!

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