It’s time for my annual list of favourite albums! I listened to a lot of new albums this year – a record-breaking 125! – so I had a lot of records to choose from in narrowing down my top 20. Still, it was a pretty difficult task. I’d say that every album down to #30 or #31 on my list could be in my top 20, depending on my mood. But I had to narrow down the list to just 20 records.
As usual, you can view my full ranking at this link:
Before I begin the list, a note: I’m restricting this list to studio full-lengths – no EPs, no splits, and no live albums. So just in case you were wondering, that Moving Mountains / Prawn split is terrific, and you should go listen to it right now. And that Incubus EP is okay, I guess.
Now on to the list!
20. Toro y Moi – What For?
Chaz Bundick, better known by his stage name Toro y Moi, has been remarkably prolific, releasing one full-length annually every year since 2010. (The one he released last year, Michael, was a dance music album under the moniker Les Sins). It’s difficult to keep up a high level of quality when you’re releasing that much music, but somehow Bundick has succeeded. Having explored R&B, chillwave, and electropop and previous efforts, he opted for a stylistic change this time around. What For? is full of sly, funky grooves and lush, psychedelic instrumentation. It obviously owes a debt of gratitude to The Beatles and other ’70s pop acts, but synthesizers and slick production give it a distinctly modern flair. Now that Bundick has done indie rock and psychedelia, what’s next for him? If he maintains his current rate of output, we’ll see next year.
Best tracks: “Buffalo”, “Empty Nesters”, “Spell It Out”
19. Silversun Pickups – Better Nature
Arguably, Silversun Pickups recorded the same album three times before putting out their fourth record, Better Nature. Now, granted, it was a good album, but one got the sense after listening to Neck of the Woods that the band had become complacent, content to repeat the same formula over and over again. Better Nature sees the band finally breaking free of their nü-gazey alt-rock mould to deliver something different and more contemplative. They incorporate more electronic elements this time around, finally remembering that they actually have a keyboardist, Joe Lester, in the band. “Connection” flirts with EDM, while album standout “Circadian Rhythm (Last Dance)” takes its cues from indietronica. These subtle variations inject some much-needed life into Silversun Pickups’ formula, but tracks like “Cradle (Better Nature)” and “Nightlight” prove that the band can still rock with the best of them. Overall, another solid effort from the Los Angeles group, and one that hints at even more interesting things to come.
Best tracks: “Pins & Needles”, “Circadian Rhythm (Last Dance)”, “Latchkey Kids”
18. Marriages – Salome
Experimental post-rock has seen somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, being taken up by the more adventurous corners of the emo revival movement. But unlike bands such as Prawn and The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, Marriages approaches post-rock directly, without a punk edge. Vocalist/guitarist Emma Ruth Rundle cut her teeth with more ambient material, and she brings that same droning intensity to her band’s debut full-length, a soundscape of slithering bass and dissonant guitars that brews like a summer storm and crashes like thunder. Salome can be surprisingly heavy at times, but in its more atmospheric moments, like the verses of “Skin” or the intro of the title track, it can deliver beauty as well.
Best tracks: “The Liar”, “Skin”, “Southern Eye”
17. Torres – Sprinter
It’s difficult to believe that Mackenzie Scott (better known by her stage name Torres) is just 24. At such a young age, her evocative lyricism makes her sound wise beyond her years. The main topic of her music is her religious Southern upbringing, which she channels not through softly-strummed country, but through rebellious ’90s alt-rock. Her sound is grungy and crunchy, and even when she writes softer songs, they brim with an intensity that threatens to spill over into something heavier and scarier. However, Scott shows restraint, and songs like “Son, You Are No Island” never explode, leaving listeners both satisfied and wanting more.
Best tracks: “Strange Hellos”, “New Skin”, “Sprinter”
16. Stove – Is Stupider
Steve Hartlett, formerly of indie rockers Ovlov, struck out on his own after his band broke up. His debut solo effort, released under the moniker of Stove, is sludgier and grungier than anything Ovlov ever put out. It turns out that lo-fi suits Hartlett quite well. He’s got a knack for writing catchy punk hooks, but his slower work, like “Dumboy,” echoes the work of grunge greats Nirvana and Alice in Chains. Hartlett is self-deprecating throughout Is Stupider, never boasting or putting himself on a pedestal. He could stand to toot his own horn a bit more, though; aside from a handful of guest vocals, he recorded all the instruments and vocals on the album. Not bad for a first-time solo record.
Best tracks: “Dusty Weather”, “Ex-Punk”, “Dumboy”
15. Vanessa Carlton – Liberman
Vanessa Carlton has always brushed up against the bounds of what mainstream pop permits an artist to do. “White Houses,” the lead single of her second album, Harmonium, got censored on several radio stations for describing the sensation of losing one’s virginity in somewhat graphic detail. Since leaving major labels behind, Carlton has been freer to express herself, and her music has changed accordingly, dropping the bright, clear piano tones of her early work for moodier, synth-driven sounds. Liberman is full of gorgeous, lush soundscapes, with five-minute opener “Take It Easy” easing listeners into Carlton’s ethereal garden of sound. But Liberman isn’t just easy listening. Lead single “Operator” has an insistent, snare-driven drum beat, and lyrics like “Pack up your things / I don’t care what you bring / Leave your house for a home.” Carlton uses pretty melodies to lull listeners into a false sense of security before jolting them awake. It’s jarring, but it’s not shocking, which is a sweet spot that takes a fair amount of skill and maturity to hit. Combine that with her descriptive, wordy lyricism, and it’s clear that Carlton has come along way from the “one-hit wonder” who recorded “A Thousand Miles.”
Best tracks: “Take It Easy”, “Operator”, “Nothing Where Something Used To Be”
14. The Wonder Years – No Closer To Heaven
Five albums into their career, The Wonder Years have shed their occasionally goofy melodic hardcore-inflected pop-punk sound for an Americana/punk hybrid that would be more familiar to listeners of Hostage Calm, Titus Andronicus, or The Menzingers. It’s a welcome maturation for Dan Campbell’s band, whose music has evolved to match his lyrics. While The Greatest Generation was intensely focused on the present and the personal, No Closer to Heaven turns its attention outward to Campbell’s friends. The album tells the story of the death of a loved one, weaving regret and nostalgia through its thirteen tracks. Campbell ponders his place in the world in the midst of social strife, like on Cardinals, where he sings, “We’re no saviours / If we can’t save our brothers,” or on the Jason Aalon Butler-featuring album standout “Stained Glass Ceilings,” which deals with the discrimination and brutality that young black men face at the hands of police. No Closer to Heaven isn’t the masterpiece that The Greatest Generation was, but with its impressive fretwork, splendid drumming, and evocative lyrics, it’s another fantastic addition to The Wonder Years’ catalogue.
Best tracks: “Cardinals”, “The Bluest Things On Earth”, “Stained Glass Ceilings”
13. Siskiyou – Nervous
It wouldn’t be a list of my favourite music of the year without at least one semi-obscure Canadian band. After a four-year break, Siskiyou have come back better than ever before. Shedding the more acoustic-driven sound of previous efforts, they adopt a dark, heavy alt-folk sound on Nervous, with opener “Deserter” delivering a churning bass line and dissonant guitar effects before launching into a saxophone solo. The album is more adventurous than their previous records, experimenting with alt-rock (“Jesus in the 70s”) and shifting time signatures (“Babylonian Proclivities”). With Nervous, Siskiyou manages to surpass their peers Half Moon Run and show that there’s a lot of territory left to be mined in the alt-folk movement.
Best tracks: “Deserter”, “Wasted Genius”, “Violent Motion Pictures”
12. I the Mighty – Connector
I the Mighty’s debut full-length, Satori, seemed like it was just a couple of steps away from being a truly great record. The band was a little too attached to mid-aughts post-hardcore to forge their own sound. On their sophomore effort, however, I the Mighty sounds a little more modern. Incorporating elements of electronic rock that recall Anberlin and Isles & Glaciers, the band sounds both more confident and more competent. Their music is still heavy and filled with screams, like on the fantastic “Playing Catch With .22,” but the softer, more melodic sections have received greater attention this time around. The I the Mighty of two years ago wouldn’t have been able to pull off a tragic love ballad like “Slow Dancing Forever” or a tastefully restrained intro track like “An Epilogue as a Prologue.” Tight songwriting, smart production choices, and prodigious vocal talent – just listen to the ridiculous tongue-twister in the verses of “(No) Faith in Fate” – make Connector one of the best albums of the year.
Best tracks: “An Epilogue as a Prologue”, “Friends”, “Andrew’s Song”
11. Florence + the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful marks a return to form for Florence + the Machine after the lethargic, disappointing Ceremonials. The band’s biggest strength has always been in delivering high-energy songs with massive hooks. HBHBHB doesn’t disappoint on that front, with Florence Welch’s pipes belting out thunderous choruses. Longtime fans may bemoan the dearth of harp lines, but the bluesy riffs and horn sections provide a worthy, if slightly more generic, replacement. The album just sounds huge, as if the band wanted listeners to be unsure that a single CD could contain its sonic splendour. One thing is clear, though: Florence + the Machine is back, and they’re kicking ass.
Best tracks: “What Kind Of Man”, “Queen of Peace”, “Third Eye”
10. Foals – What Went Down
Foals leaves behind their mathier tendencies on What Went Down, instead delivering ten tracks of blistering post-punk revival. There’s nothing as gorgeous as “Blue Blood” or “Spanish Sahara” here. Instead, lead vocalist Yannis Philippakis sings with a raspy yelp, backed by thick bass and distorted guitars; the opening title track sees him almost screaming the chorus. But the intensity and verve of What Went Down make for an exciting thrill ride. The album doesn’t let up until the final note of the Boxer Rebellion-esque “A Knife In The Ocean.” Conventional wisdom might say that post-punk revival is dead, but not since Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights or The Boxer Rebellion’s Exits has a record in the genre hit so hard.
Best tracks: “Mountain At My Gates”, “Birch Tree”, “Night Swimmers”
9. The Money Pit – The Money Pit
To be frank, Nic Newsham’s old band, Gatsbys American Dream, never did much for me. Imagine my surprise when I really dug his new project, The Money Pit. Dispensing with his former project’s mathy tendencies (that seems to be a common theme here), his new band’s self-titled debut delivers 11 tracks of high-energy power pop. Newsham takes aim at the economic system and rich elites who game the system in their favour. His lyrics are biting and sardonic, often ironically dropping his moral compass. For example, in “Control Everything,” he muses, “Maybe I could start a charity / Maybe I could write off everything.” I hope he doesn’t go through with that idea and keeps making music instead, because anger suits Newsham well.
Best tracks: “I Want My Money Back”, “Big Blue Waves”, “Control Everything”
8. Grimes – Art Angels
Benevolent space alien Claire Boucher (better known as Grimes) has been recording hella weird space-age pop music for about half a decade now, beaming it down to Earth in transmissions known as “CDs.” Art Angels, her fourth studio full-length, is a bit more accessible than its predecessors, trading in some atmosphere for massive pop hooks, but it still takes listeners on a strange journey through Boucher’s psyche, with stops at an intergalactic genderfluid reinterpretation of The Godfather II (“Kill V. Maim”) and using the tools of beauty as weapons (“Venus Fly”). It’s a bizarre record from start to finish, but it’s never less than compelling, thanks to impeccable production, which – surprise! – Boucher handled herself. With bright guitars, sci-fi synths, her trademark chipmunk vocals, and even a violin or two, Boucher has crafted one of the best alt-pop albums of recent years.
Best tracks: “Flesh without Blood”, “Kill V. Maim”, “World Princess part II”
7. City and Colour – If I Should Go Before You
There are no doubt many who lament Dallas Green’s move away from sparse acoustic guitar arrangements, and it’s true that there’s a bit of intimacy missing from his music now. But with a full band behind him, Green can churn out some truly great bluesy alt-country. Unlike Justin Vernon’s failed and overblown attempt to transition Bon Iver to a full band, Green has been largely successful at creating entertaining music with a backing band, without falling into the trap of being overly bombastic. It helps that he keeps things mostly simple: drums, bass, electric guitar, with the occasional bit of slide guitar for that country twang. If I Should Go Before You is the best of Green’s full-band efforts so far, and it’s not lacking for great tracks, such as the brooding, atmospheric opening track, “Woman,” or the supremely fun stomper, “Wasted Love.” Green is back with the reunited Alexisonfire now, but hopefully he still finds time for his side project, because I sense he has an even better album in him.
Best tracks: “Woman”, “Northern Blues”, “Wasted Love”
6. Pet Symmetry – Pets Hounds
Sometimes it’s best to get in and get out. Pet Symmetry’s debut full-length is lean, with only one of its ten tracks clocking in at longer than three-and-a-half minutes; four of them are shorter than two minutes long. But this Chicago power pop trio can fit everything they want to say into a small window. There’s nary a wasted second on the cleverly titled Pets Hounds, with chunky riffs and witty lyrics occupying every nook and cranny. Whether singing about being in a depressive funk (“My Exhausted Month (Of May)”) or police brutality (“Class Action Force (Useless Tools)”), the band’s lyrics are full of wordplay, internal rhyming, and alliteration. With songwriting that is both tight and dense, Pet Symmetry has cemented itself as a force to be reckoned with.
Best tracks: “Class Action Force (Useless Tools)”, “Aisle (Or Window)”, “Salad Daze (Seein’ Cred)”
5. Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass
With its Nashville twang and classic jazz flair, Natalie Prass’s self-titled album became one of the most buzzed-about debuts of the year in music criticism circles – and with good reason: it’s one of the best-crafted chamber pop records you’re likely to find. It’s all the more impressive that this is Prass’s debut; Natalie Prass sounds like the work of a seasoned veteran. Prass’s voice, a delicate croon, is certainly part of what makes the record sound so appealing. But the contributions of producers Matthew E. White and Trey Pollard shouldn’t be discounted; their string and horn arrangements are a large part of what gives the album its loose, jazzy character. The end result is an album that is immaculately produced, but that feels organic. Not only that – it’s one of the best records of 2015.
Best tracks: “My Baby Don’t Understand Me”, “Bird of Prey”, “Violently”
4. The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Harmlessness
In the middle of “Rage Against the Dying of the Light,” The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die’s lead singer, David Bello, sings, “I am alive / I deserve to be / Not getting quiet / Swallowing age.” Those lyrics may not seem remarkable, but it’s odd to hear something so life-affirming in an emo revival song. After all, “emo” built its reputation on bumming the fuck out of people. However, TWIABP isn’t interested in making people feel like shit; Harmlessness, the band’s second LP, is an uplifting record. Even “January 10th, 2014,” a song about a female vigilante getting revenge on bus drivers who captured and murdered women in Mexico, is framed as celebratory. Musically, the album goes through unexpected twists and turns, sometimes channelling old-school Death Cab For Cutie (“The Word Lisa”), and other times descending into full-on post-rock glory (“We Need More Skulls”). But most impressive are the album’s twin closers, “I Can Be Afraid of Anything” and “Mount Hum.” The former is an inspirational song about overcoming mental health issues, and the latter is a churning, atmospheric post-rock epic that reminisces about a loved one’s death. Ironically for such an uplifting record, Harmlessness is obsessed with death. However, the band always takes the perspective that since death is inevitable, we should make the most of our lives. In “Rage Against the Dying of the Light,” Bello also sings, “But bless those sharp tears / But rage and burn / And turn all those lights out / Before it gets warm.” Rage and burn, indeed.
Best tracks: “January 10th, 2014”, “Rage Against the Dying of the Light”, “Mount Hum”
3. Braids – Deep in the Iris
We usually think of soul-baring albums as solo efforts, where a single artist with a clear vision spills their guts for all to hear. But Braids has always been a collaborative effort. While vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Raphaelle Standell-Preston handles the lyrical duties, drummer Austin Tufts and bassist Taylor Smith contribute musical ideas, and for Braids’ third record, they opted to record more instruments live off the floor instead of relying on electronics or programming. The result is an album that is both lyrically and musically intimate. Ironically, though, Deep in the Iris is far from a gentle record. Many of its tracks deal with the dark side of sexuality, with “Blondie” and “Miniskirt” taking aim at a sexual abuser, and “Sore Eyes” describing the self-loathing that comes with viewing pornography for titillation but being viscerally disgusted by it. The album’s confessional nature is also evident on “Taste,” where Standell-Preston describes mistreating someone she loves, and “Bunny Rose,” where she wrestles with heartbreak by retreating towards things that bring her comfort. Standell-Preston doesn’t use metaphor to obscure, so even when she’s exposing her vulnerabilities, her words are striking, and the music reflects this. The aforementioned “Miniskirt,” for example, punctuates her vocals with harsh, distorted synths, while “Taste” employs a delicate but intricate drum pattern that makes the chorus soar as Standell-Preston declares her love. Deep in the Iris is the rare record that manages to marry its words and music in such a way that they complement each other perfectly. It’s the product of a band whose members work completely in sync to create incredible music.
Best tracks: “Taste”, “Miniskirt”, “Bunny Rose”
2. Runaway Brother – Mother
After releasing the excellent Bedhead EP back in 2012, Runaway Brother got busy with touring and eventually recorded a full-length, Mother, finally released this year. Mixing the tight math rock of Maps & Atlases with the knotty, discursive pop-punk of Say Anything sounds like a recipe for disaster, yet Runaway Brother not only pulls it off with aplomb, but manages to surpass both of those bands by miles. Mother has all the hallmarks of a debut record – its production isn’t overly slick, and there are no false stabs at maturity – but it’s a fantastic debut record – one of the best I’ve ever heard, in fact. The band confidently navigates shifting time signatures, vocal harmonies, and stylistic transitions, all without missing a beat. Every abrupt change feels natural; the songs don’t always go where you expect them to go, but their destination always makes total sense in retrospect. And even though the songs have a lot of content packed into them, they’re all supremely catchy. “Moth” and “Reprise” are earworms, with the latter’s chorus of “Mary, Mary do you wanna?” getting stuck in my head for weeks. Lyrically, the album stands apart from from its pop-punk peers by dispensing with genre’s typically snotty, bratty attitude; the band’s words are marked by humility, not venom or braggadocio. Take “False Halo,” for example, which is about a romantic partner acting cold and distant. Instead of name-calling, the band focuses on the singer’s own reactions to her attitude. It’s that kind of maturity – both lyrical and musical – that makes Runaway Brother so appealing. Here’s hoping they preserve that maturity on subsequent efforts.
Best tracks: “Hummingbird”, “Faking It”, “Reprise”
1. Foxing – Dealer
Foxing’s Dealer is a sublime accomplishment. Following 2013’s well-received The Albatross, an atmospheric post-hardcore record, fans were probably expecting another album full of heavy riffs and throat-rending screams. Instead, Foxing chose to leach the punk edge out of their sound, leaving behind sparse post-rock soundscapes. Dealer is a beautiful record, one that’s marked more by restraint than by catharsis. The songs are soft and slow, never layering guitars on top of guitars, so that when they finally do explode, like in the bridge of “Night Channels” or the chorus of “Eiffel,” they have even more impact than they otherwise would. Dealer doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter. “The Magdalene” confronts how a religious upbringing can cause feelings of guilt and shame after premarital sex, while “Indica” deals with bassist and lyricist Josh Coll’s time as a soldier in Afghanistan. “Indica,” in particular, is an impressively brave track, with an ostinato guitar line, martial drums, and a lone trumpet providing a simple backdrop for singer Conor Murphy to confess on Coll’s behalf to causing the deaths of innocents. Speaking of Murphy, his vocals talents have only grown since The Albatross. In Dealer’s heavier moments, like the final chorus of “The Magdalene,” he turns his voice into a sharp, high-pitched bark, and its softer moments, like the opening of the piano-driven “Night Channels,” he employs a low croon. At other times, he uses a gorgeous falsetto. That kind of versatility makes Murphy one of the most talented vocalists in the modern post-rock/emo scene. No less impressive are the band’s other members, whose musical contributions help create the album’s beautiful atmosphere. Of particular note is drummer Jon Hellwig, whose snare work in opener “Weave” is technical yet tasteful. Overall, Dealer is just an incredible record – probably one of my twenty favourite albums of all time – and the new gold standard for post-rock and emo revival records.
Best tracks: “The Magdalene”, “Night Channels”, “Indica”
So there you have it: my twenty favourite albums of 2015. Expect a run-down of my favourite individual songs of the year in the coming weeks.
What albums did you like in 2015? Are there any notable LPs that I left off my list? Let me know in the comments below.