My Favorite Albums of 2015 (11-20)

Now that everyone has had time to let those honorable mention albums sink in, it seems only right to pummel my tiny audience with albums number 11-20 on my list of 2015’s royalty. Here you’ll find the stuff that I revisited many a time, stuff that (in some instances) narrowly missed the vaunted top 10. A lot of these albums are virtually interchangeable for me, as they merely did things right in different ways for me. It was the little things that made the difference between, say, position 14 and position 15. Let’s get in there and get our hands dirty.

20. Superhumanoids: Do You Feel OK?

I hadn’t heard of Superhumanoids until a few short months ago, but the instantly likable Do You Feel OK? changed all of that in a hurry. Superhumanoids specialize in a brand of electronic music still willing to feel exceedingly human, opting to take warm progressions and flesh them out with digital flourishes rather than wandering into a more experimental realm. All over the album you’ll find creeping synths, rumbling bass, and indisputable hooks. The texture here is important, as it adds an undercurrent of energy to songs like “Oh Me I” that might otherwise feel also-ran. “Touch Me” is an exciting and surprising track, full of inspired changes and sing-along moments. Then again, there are repeatable instances just about everywhere here. One listen to the lurching bass on “Norwegian Death Metal” or the glitching video game synths of “Blinking Screens” and it would be hard not to want to come back for more.

19. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar has successfully brought the music to the forefront of his rap career. It sounds so basic, but someone had to do it! Lamar is getting plenty of attention (and rightfully so) for investing his time to create a mindful collection of songs that address a myriad of racial and social issues rather than propping up their creator. Reading the lyric sheets and mining Lamar’s work for meaning is absolutely a rewarding venture, but I like my rap (and, fuck it, all of my music) to sound good, and Lamar is more than up to the task. To Pimp a Butterfly is ripe with influences, dishing out pop, R & B, jazz, and funk like it was a foregone conclusion. “King Kunta” probably has the bass line of the year, while the sensual “Alright” comes across as a positive affirmation that eventually the world doesn’t have to be as race-torn as it sure is now. Then there’s “The Blacker the Berry,” a startlingly honest song during which Lamar spits physical generalizations about himself specific to his race, throwing them in the face of anyone who won’t accept him. Lamar spent a long time putting To Pimp a Butterfly together, and it shows in every facet.

18. Fightstar: Behind the Devil’s Back

Fightstar make what isn’t all that far from radio rock. I actually mean that as a compliment, as the band has a knack for crafting songs that are able to hit hard and slip into pop glory all the same. Sometimes this happens within the course of the same song, while other times the changes are more clearly delineated. Either way, Fightstar wisely keep the production thick enough and the vocals occasionally raw enough to avoid unsavory comparisons, and on Behind the Devil’s Back a clear Deftones influence shoves its way to the forefront. Album opener “Sharp Tongue” tells you pretty much what you’re getting into; things start out thunderous, slink back into a shinier verse, and wind up an all-out assault before one last trip to the deceptively catchy chorus. “Titan” earns points for one of the most ass-kicking endings of the year, while “More Human Than Human” has nothing to do with that White Zombie song and offers a sweetly-conceived respite on what is otherwise a pretty heavy album. It’s a welcome offering from a band that seemed all but dead after its near-decade step away from the spotlight.

17. Bully: Feels Like

The frenzied intro on “I Remember” is the primer Bully needed to deliver before unraveling an album much more interesting than anything that came before it in the band’s admittedly limited catalog. This time around, Bully are playing for keeps, ripping through short indie rock anthems like it’s second nature. Everywhere you turn, you’ll find impassioned shouts from singer Alicia Bognanno, and that’s a new thing as well. The elastic bass of “Trying” is endlessly fun to listen to, while the lazy Pixies-esque intro of “Too Tough” introduces a slightly down-tempo version of this new sound. After all, if you’re playing this stuff live, you have to slow things down here and there or risk physical exhaustion, right? All in all, it’s the riffs and the raw-and-snotty vocal work of Bognanno that easily solidified the underdog Feels Like as one of my favorites 2015 produced.

16. Built to Spill: Untethered Moon

Doug Martsch still sounds like Doug Martsch. I don’t mean the weary Doug Martsch that seemed like he was half-aping himself on You in Reverse or parts of Ancient Melodies of the Future, I mean the Doug Martsch that pumped all the world’s energy back into guitar music with the holy triumvirate he churned out between 1994 and 1999. Untethered Moon is loaded with big guitars, and I can just feel the shit-eating grin across their perpetrator’s bearded face. “All Our Songs” is the “Broken Chairs” of this album, stomping on through with its meta lyrics, bursting out into pedal overload, and later somehow gaining more steam. “Living Zoo” has those bendy chords and shimmering single notes that couldn’t come from anyone else, “Horizon To Cliff” sticks its head in the clouds, and “When I’m Blind” closes things out with what is probably a 900-minute buzzsaw solo that falls completely apart. The fact that Martsch could make all this sound so fresh after all this time is a testament to what a great fucking sound he helped create in the first place. If the guy can do this at 46, I’m willing to say there’s plenty of gas still in the tank.

15. Deerhunter: Fading Frontier

In over a decade of existence, Deerhunter have shown themselves to be a prolific and diverse band, an indie rock outfit willing to branch out in all sorts of directions. Their last album, Monomania, was divisive among fans thanks to a much rawer and splintering approach. Fading Frontier ditches the garage rock attack for a hazy, smooth trek into adulthood. The well-constructed “All the Same” once again finds Bradford Cox, Lockett Pundt, and company packing multiple solid chord changes into a song with some pretty thoughtful lyrical content about a father apparently undergoing a sex change. “Living My Life” features a new level of glitch in the band’s music, while “Snakeskin” transitions from funk to rock and back without batting an eye. Perhaps fittingly, the end of album closer “Carrion” almost sounds a bit like David Bowie, one of music’s other great chameleons. There are inevitably those out there trumpeting Fading Frontier as a “return to form” for the southern band, but there isn’t a definitive form present in the first place.

14. Torres: Sprinter

Sprinter always feels dark, and sometimes it feels angry. “Strange Hellos” begins with palm-muted downward guitar strokes tossed in intermittently only to eventually explode when Mackenzie Scott feels it necessary. The climax of the song actually feels rather unexpected, but then again Scott’s lower female register isn’t what we’ve become accustomed to hearing. Sequencing the beaten-down “New Skin” second after “Strange Hellos” is a neat trick, as Scott tries to find herself to the tune of a picked-out progression dripping with emotion. This time when the guitars spiral out, Scott controls her voice almost to prove that she can. The album’s midsection is a fever dream, stonewalling the aggression in favor of depressive tension. The tender moments on songs like “Ferris Wheel” and “A Proper Polish Welcome” don’t seem likely to come from the same source as “Strange Hellos” or the slow-stomping “The Harshest Light.” The end result is an album that sets a mood and holds on with a determined grip until all the sound is gone.

13. Braids: Deep In the Iris

Braids don’t always know exactly how experimental they want to go on Deep In The Iris. Or maybe that’s just naive of me, and the plan all along was to pull back into the happy zone just in time to strike a perfect balance. This could be a more straightforward electro-pop album in a different band’s hands, but I’m glad it’s not. The constantly shifting percussion and electronic meandering taking place underneath the beauty simply serves to enhance the power of each song. Singer Raphaelle Standall-Preston’s posthumous account of a relationship on “Happy When” is downright wrenching because of her heart-rip vocals, but the descending piano and epileptic beats get a solid assist. “Miniskirt” finds Standall-Preston smartly addressing gender hypocrisy over dancing piano chords before the beats and bass come in as bloodthirsty enforcers. The drum overkill on “Warm Like Summer” instills an energy that simply wouldn’t have been there otherwise. There are plenty of examples, but the bottom line is that Braids are certainly more than a sum of their considerable parts.

12. Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell

I think a lot of us got kind of tired of Sufjan Stevens. It’s been 10 years since he followed up the very good Seven Swans and Michigan with his breathtaking magnum opus Illinois, an album both huge in its scope and intimate in its detail. Since then, the soft-singing Stevens has tried a lot of different things, all valid but none as wholly enrapturing as his earlier work. On Carrie & Lowell, Stevens tosses all of his excess out the window in favor of an acoustic guitar and his own voice. It sounds like an eye-roll inducing gimmick, but if you pay attention you can hear his fucking air conditioner running in the background. The subject matter on the album deals with Stevens’ mother and step-father, and it’s terrifyingly bleak. Songs like “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” and “Fourth of July” are packed full of little details and big imagery; this is intended as a lyrical record, and Stevens makes his stories far more effective by taking away any distractions from his gaze. This is an upsetting album to listen to on headphones when you’re relaxing, as Stevens creates a world where his own introspection turns itself back around on the voyeur.

 

11. Wolf Alice: My Love Is Cool

The young, British rock band Wolf Alice are clearly into a lot of different permutations of their choice genre. Just as comfortable channeling offbeat folk as Pixies-aping debauchery, Wolf Alice run the gamut on My Love Is Cool. In addition to a willingness to adapt and diversify, the band benefit from the presence of co-founder, singer, and guitarist Ellie Roswell. Her voice is as sweet as can be on the lullaby jaunt of “Lisbon,” lion’s-roar-raw on the chorus of “You’re a Germ,” and pleasantly disaffected on the moody “Giant Peach.”

The lack of a true feel on My Love Is Cool is somehow an advantage rather than a weakness. Each song is mesmerizing because each movement is both difficult to predict and exciting to behold. The late breakdown in “Giant Peach” couldn’t possibly be seen from the outset of the song. The five-alarm guitar on “Fluffy” comes as a sharp contrast to the dream-like atmospherics during the verse. The start-and-stop fun of “Your Love’s Whore” has nothing to do with anything else that comes after. All of these examples and more are why Wolf Alice are a force to be reckoned with, a talented band growing up and recording each step at the same time.

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