Tuesday 15 December 2015

The Gizzle Review's Albums of 2015

It’s fair to say that 2015 hasn’t exactly been a vintage year for pop music. That’s not to say there haven’t been some brilliant albums, but there’s been a distinct lack of some major players this year. And despite some incredible singles, albums haven’t quite managed to match their quality. Is the album dying? Probably not, but sporadic hits are definitely more widespread. To that end, choosing ten albums that reflect the year and putting them in some semblance of order is a tough task, but that’s what the end of the year is all about right?

10. Troye Sivan – Blue Neighbourhood

Troye Sivan – Blue Neighbourhood

Why it made the top 10:
2015 was the year that YouTube stardom reached new heights. Halsey may have got there first, but it was Troye Sivan who caused the biggest stir when his debut album was released this December, proving that being a YouTube star is far more than just silly viral vlogs. There’s genuine heart and emotion to Sivan’s music that, along with the downbeat synthy production, appeals to the sadface teen in all of us – even if the best songs were heard earlier on his ‘Wild’ EP. More so, as an out gay popstar with a huge following, the future is incredibly bright.

“…it’s the honesty of the songwriting that really impresses, wrapped up in nagging hooks and production that’s warm and comforting one minute and coldly modern the next. It’s no coincidence that a popstar whose fame has arisen on the internet would create an album full of computerised music, but there’s genuine heart here that pulls it all together.”

Best track: Wild

9. Kate Boy – One

Kate Boy – One

Why it made the top 10:
There was a tonne of brilliant Scandi-pop released in 2015, but Kate Boy stand out for their darker, grittier sound mixed with glittering melodies, whilst singer Kate Akhurst’s guttural vocal brings an earthy, almost animalistic quality. It’s perhaps a little disappointing that their sound hasn’t developed since the release of their debut EP in 2012 and ‘One’ does repeat a lot of similar ideas. Yet when the throbbing electronic beats consistently build to such thrilling, euphoric climaxes, it makes for an infectious listen.

“…the band display economy of sound, creating a whole album of urgent pop from a limited palette. With electro-pop so prevalent in Scandinavia, Kate Boy have managed to carve a sound that's all their own, full of nagging hooks, a unique vocal, and production with an alluringly dark edge.

Best track: Higher

8. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Why it made the top 10:
“Every n***** is a star” goes the opening lyric. Yet some stars shine brighter than others and Kendrick Lamar is the central inferno to which all other rappers should turn to. Every element of ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ drips with racial politics, from the personal lyrics that depict his own place in society to the re-appropriation of traditionally black genres. Drake may have provided the rap anthem of the year in Hotline Bling, but Lamar’s album is a more mature, powerful and vital collection of songs, cementing his place as the year’s most important rapper.

There’s thematic depth here that requires repeated listening to comprehend, but it proves far more rewarding than the shouted rants of other similar hip hop artists. This is an album that surely resonates with a wider cultural context.

Best track: King Kunta

7. Björk – Vulnicura

Björk – Vulnicura

Why it made the top 10:
Björk does heartbreak. Need I say more? ‘Vulnicura’ is perhaps Björk’s most personal and candid album to date, inspired by the breakdown of her relationship with partner Matthew Barney. Lyrically this is raw stuff as she demands “show me emotional respect”, but the way the production – combining many elements from her previous work – integrates with the lyrics through word painting is beautiful to behold. In a year full of break-up albums, Björk’s stands as the most visceral of all.

As with all of her output, this is a musically and lyrically rich avant garde album in which to thoroughly lose yourself, blessed with her unique Icelandic magic. Heartbreak may be prevalent in all forms of music, but rarely is it depicted in such an emotionally affecting and strangely relatable way as here.

Best track: History of Touches

6. Years & Years – Communion

Years & Years – Communion

Why it made the top 10:
Years & Years began the year on a high after winning the BBC Sound of 2015 poll. They end the year somewhat critically panned. For some, debut album ‘Communion’ was a disappointment. For others, their music was simply overplayed. Yet Years & Years are surely worthy of a place on end of year lists for their combination of 2015’s hottest R&B/house/pop trends, but more so for their command of melody. King, first released way back in January, remains the best pop track of the year with its layers of joyously uplifting melodies – an approach that’s consistent with the album at large, if never quite matched.

Every track is built around an infectious hook, but King is a prime example, layering and developing its melodies right through to the final notes. Whether glorious, menacing, yearning or melancholic, emotion is key - every melody makes you feel something, overcoming any lyrical shortcomings.”

Best track: King

5. Adele – 25

Adele – 25

Why it made the top 10:
“Hello…it’s me”. Three words that sent the music industry in a frenzy. ‘25’ is amongst the biggest selling albums ever, let alone this year, and for good reason. Adele may re-tread familiar themes through safe production, but few singers can deliver such gut-punching ballads with this level of conviction. Adele succeeds because she is the everyman, a popstar who morphs personal feeling into relatable emotions that have a profound resonance with the listener. Other artists may have shown a greater willingness to experiment, but 2015 was the year that Adele - her soulful voice and hysterical laughter - rose to god levels of super-stardom.

Even “not quite as good” Adele, though, is still a remarkable singer-songwriter, who makes music out of personal tragedy and is a voice for us all, a voice that is deep and rich and powerful and loaded with feeling. She is a soul singer not just in that her voice is soulful, but in that it cuts through to our own souls and strips us to our core.

Best track: Hello

4. Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion

Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion

Why it made the top 10:
It’s frankly a crime against music that this album hasn’t performed better commercially. Perhaps it’s because of a poorly conceived album campaign. Perhaps it’s because the general public already reached peak Jepsen after the release of Call Me Maybe in 2012. Or perhaps it just sounds a bit too much like Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’. Either way, ‘Emotion’ is the culmination of some incredible pop talent creating an 80s inspired album that’s polished to near perfection and sung by a squeaky clean, adorable singer. From the giddy rush of Run Away With Me, to the nagging earworm of I Really Like You and beyond, this is sophisticated bubblegum pop that’s frothy but consistently enjoyable.

“…it's quite the team behind 'Emotion' - some of the best writers and producers in modern pop, in fact. The result is an impossibly polished 80s-influenced album, delivered through the effervescent personality of Carly Rae - just on the right side of adorable/nauseating.

Best track: Run Away With Me

3. Justin Bieber – Purpose

Justin Bieber – Purpose

Why it made the top 10:
Who would’ve predicted this at the start of the year? No matter what you think of Bieber personally, he’s become second only to Adele in the global superstar stakes. Finally dropping the childish stigma of Baby, ‘Purpose’ is a far more mature album than you may expect, with a specific sound that corners the market for happy-sad dance-pop (just ignore the soppy ballads). With Where Are Ü Now, What Do You Mean and Sorry, Bieber’s had three of the biggest singles of the year, finally living up to the potential he showed from such a young age. Finally, it’s cool to like Bieber.

The key song here is Sorry. Sure, it embodies this 2015 ‘Bieber sound’, but more so it’s an apology in more ways than one, summing up his career so far and marking a turning point for the future.”

Best track: Sorry

2. Emilie Nicolas – Like I’m A Warrior

Emilie Nicolas – Like I’m A Warrior

Why it made the top 10:
2015 was full of break-up albums, but it was Norway’s Emilie Nicolas (not Adele!) who created the most emotionally arresting collection of songs. With its widescreen electronic production drenched in intense melancholy, this is an album that transports us through sadness, anger, desperation, nostalgia and hope, all tinged with a cold darkness that exemplifies Nordic Noir. This is the sort of album you can lose yourself in for hours on repeat, where a single lyric can cut like a knife through lush, gloomy synths, where painful truth finds cathartic release.

“This is an album, then, that travels through the mixed emotions of an ending relationship...And alongside these emotions there's polished and detailed electronic production that shows restraint in the face of melodrama; pain and misery in the heavy beats, stabbing strings and icy synths; beauty in the breakdown.

Best track: Pstereo

1. Grimes – Art Angels

Grimes – Art Angels

Why it made the top 10:
To be honest, any of these albums could’ve taken the top spot in a year where no one album truly stood out above the rest. ‘Art Angels’ isn’t a perfect album, but it’s arguably the most unique and creative album on this list. Grimes is a wildly experimental artist who takes genres like punk, rock, folk, electro and K-pop, chews them up and spits them out into something glorious and new. That’s as true on ‘Art Angels’ as it’s been on any of her previous albums. Yet here that experimentation is underpinned by a strong pop sensibility, where crazy ideas are given strength through infectious hooks, where grand sweeping production is littered with tiny details, where challenging music slowly creeps under your skin and refuses to let go. In short, ‘Art Angels’ is a triumph of the individual, and in today’s industry of identikit pop music that’s something of a rarity.

“…Boucher has an ear for pop melody and that happy-sad thing that all good pop has, yet equally a complete punk disregard for style and genre. She doesn’t quite operate in a vacuum – after all, you can pick out her influences – but not once does she attempt to conform to expectations.

Best track: Flesh Without Blood

Honourable Mentions:

Tame Impala - Currents

Susanne Sundfør - Ten Love Songs

Jamie xx - In Colour

Lana Del Rey - Honeymoon

And here's a playlist of 2015's best songs...