At the close of 2014, I missed the train on putting together a “Best Albums of the Year” list, and I regretted it. I decided not to make the same mistake this year. Compiling these lists is difficult, though. Impossible, actually. Whether you believe art is entirely subjective or has some mix of objectivity somewhere in there (read: David Hume), making any sort of comprehensive list is an insurmountable task. With the rate of release these days, no one in the world could actually listen to every album that came out this year–whereas in film seeing every notable work is actually doable.
Needless to say, I’ve put together a top 15 that has plenty of holes. There are albums I know I would’ve really liked if I’d spent more time with them (see: Father John Misty, Jason Isbell, Caspian, Butch Walker), albums that the whole world seemed to love but I never even listened to (see: Sufjan Stevens, Courtney Barnett, Julia Holter, Noah Gundersen), and possibly worst of all, albums that I’ve purchased but haven’t finished listening to yet (my apologies to Leigh Nash, Julien Baker and Wilco).
What’s even stranger is, over this past month, as New Year’s Eve gets closer and this task becomes more daunting, I’ve barely been listening to any music at all. Literally close to none. That fact will surprise anyone who knows me well. In an ideal world, I would have spent December revisiting all of the albums I liked to freshen up on my opinions and get everything neat and orderly.
So I’m warning you now that this list is not neat and orderly. I can’t even utilize the nice template I set forth in my 15 of ’15 Films list. Instead, these are the 15 albums where I can remember where I was when I listened to them for the first time and how I felt when the record was over. These are the albums that left strong impressions on me, not just as a critic but as a fan. These are my essential albums of 2015.
15. The Phosphorescent Blues by The Punch Brothers
Shall we return to where it all began? By that, I mean January. Oh, January: the month where, no matter how good your album or movie is, you’re almost guaranteed to be forgotten come award season. Lest ye fear, my inconsequential list actually contains three albums with January street dates. The first of these is Phosphorescent Blues, and whether you call it “folk” or “progressive bluegrass,” just don’t call it “forgettable.” Led by Chris Thile, the child prodigy who would later play mandolin for Nickel Creek, the Punch Brothers have produced an experimental set that revitalizes bluegrass for the modern age. (And this is coming from a band that in the past covered Radiohead’s “Kid A.”) While this isn’t the only album released this year to start out with a ten-minute long song–City & Colour’s If You Should Go Before Me comes to mind–this is certainly the most affecting of the bunch. Swelling back and forth with a classical sensitivity and ease, opening number “Familiarity” will either force a listener to give up or earn one’s undivided attention for the remaining 37 minutes of melodic, discordant, inventive, and beautiful mandolin-based music.
14. Delirium by Ellie Goulding
2015 in pop music was littered with as many pleasant surprises (Carly Rae Jepsen, Brandon Flowers, DNCE, Selena Gomez) as it was with disappointments (Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, Chris Brown). Yet even though the world is currently still fawning over the unstoppable success of Adele’s 25, it was the third album by another British singer that won my heart. Following a sophomore album that wasn’t as successful as her first, Ellie Goulding returned to public consciousness with “Love Me Like You Do,” her contribution to the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. It became a hit single and has now earned Goulding a Golden Globe nomination. Eight months later, official lead single “On My Mind” showed off pulsating synths, earworm hooks, Police-inspired guitar work, and wall-of-sound background vocals that only hinted at how strong Delirium would be. With a nearly bloated track listing, these 16 songs are all runaway successes, from the too-catchy “Don’t Need Nobody” to the power ballad “Army,” which absolutely brings down the house and gives Goulding the opportunity to show off her talents and range as a vocalist. Each song is a pristinely-produced sugar rush, where the only three logical options when you’ve finished listening to the record are to go for a jog, take a nap, or go back to track 1. I went with the third option, as this was the only pop album of the year that made me want to keep listening to it over and over again.
13. That’s the Spirit by Bring Me the Horizon
I am both proud and disappointed to have an album by Bring Me the Horizon on this list. I’m proud because I used to hate this band; I’d hated them since 2006 and I think it’s important that we have the ability to change our opinions about artists (as well as about people). I’m disappointed because, as a whole, I’ve wildly neglected the metal genre this year. To be fair, I only truly became a metal fan in 2012, with the releases of Monolith by Sylosis and Parallax II by Between the Buried and Me. Both bands released follow-ups this year, which were both disappointments by my standards, but even the metal albums I loved the most–Abandoned by Defeater, V by Scale the Summit, New Bermuda by Deafheaven, The Long Goodbye by An Autumn for Crippled Children–I only listened to once each. That’s the Spirit, on the other hand, captured me in a different way. I still remember hearing “Happy Song” for the first time and wondering if BMTH had finally become a band I could enjoy. The full album followed through on that potential. Songs from this album get stuck in my head all the time, and if it happens to be one of my least favorites tracks, like “Throne” or “True Friends,” you still won’t hear me complaining about it. The drastic stylistic shift to only clean vocals has received constant comparisons to Linkin Park, (which is accurate nowhere except on the aforementioned “Throne”), but this record is stronger and more consistent than any of LP’s LPs. Frontman Oli Sykes has proven himself to be a formidable melody craftsman, with songs like “Follow You” and “Avalanche” showing off the band at its strongest. If you don’t believe me, check out the bookending highlights “Doomed” and “Oh No”–but only if you’re going in prepared to possibly change your mind about what you’d thought before.
12. +- by Mew
I reviewed Mew’s previous record for my high school newspaper. It was 2009 and I was a senior. A lot has changed in my life since then, as has much for the members of this Danish outfit, which formed in 1995 before becoming debatably the world’s first “indie stadium” band. The 2010 release of a best-of compilation crushed hopes of another album, but the return of original bassist Johan Wohlert in 2014 vigorously revived those hopes. The band’s lineup was now the same as it had been for the indie rock classics And the Glass Handed Kites (2005) and Frengers (2003), and it should be clear to new and longtime listeners alike from opening number “Satellites” that +- is something special. If not as revolutionary as Frengers or strikingly memorable as Kites, the album nevertheless creates, expands upon, and envelopes you with a sound that is uniquely Mew. What’s changed the most is how the members of Mew have become expert sonic engineers, forming each synth sound, guitar riff, and drum beat to perfectly match Jonas Bjerre’s angelic vocals. “Making Friends,” for example, appears here in its third officially-released version. Meanwhile, “My Complications” pairs incredible guitar-playing with incredible guitar tones, making for a matchless rock song, whereas the final two tracks cover 18 minutes without wasting a single second. Mew continue to make the kind of music for people who think rock music peaked between 1964 and 1975, and I can only hope that we don’t have to wait another six years for such a carefully precise work of art.
11. American Beauty/American Psycho by Fall Out Boy
There’s a big difference between an album you love because you’re biased and an album you love so much, it created a new bias within you. As for Fall Out Boy, a lot rested on the release of American Beauty/American Psycho and how much longer I, not to mention thousands of other fans, would continue to support the band. After ending a hiatus with the surprise release of Save Rock & Roll in 2013, the announcement of AB/AP was an obvious attempt to quickly cash in on the momentum of the band’s resuscitated success. Haphazard early singles such as “Centuries” and “Irresistible” seemed to represent a band falling apart at the seams, having lost the drive to push themselves as artists. SR&R had already been my least favorite Fall Out Boy record, so I began worrying, ‘Were they finally going to release their first bad album?’ Out of fear, I found myself spending most of January obsessing over the band’s pre-hiatus albums. I fell in love with Infinity on High all over again, having not heard it in years. I decided that From Under the Cork Tree was one of the definitive albums of the 00’s. And I realized that Folie à Deux might be one of my favorite albums of all time. When January 20 finally rolled around, all my fears disappeared. Not only did the early singles work a lot better in the context of the other songs–(Fall Out Boy has always made a purposeful effort to create sets of songs that belong together as a whole)–but the deep cuts are also some of the best of the band’s career. “The Kids Aren’t Alright” is a power ballad for people who hate power ballads, “Novocaine” utilizes the full extent of Patrick Stump’s range to create one of the band’s catchiest hooks ever, second only to the pop perfection of “Favorite Record,” and “Twin Skeletons” proves that the band still does have an experimental itch to scratch. “Immortals” is the album’s only misstep, which is more than forgivable for a band that now has six great albums and zero bad ones. So am I biased? Because of how good this album turned out to be, yes, I am extremely biased in Fall Out Boy’s favor.
Part 2 can be read here.