'Pop' is a genre tag without a real definition, an umbrella under which all kinds of sounds and textures exist, and Claire Boucher seems determined to explore them all. Art Angels sees the singer/songwriter/producer try on any number of aesthetic outfits, exploring Country twang (California), K-Pop exuberance (Kill v. Maim), seductive House (Realiti), and whatever the hell SCREAM is. She paints each rhetoric in her own distinct color, making for an album that's defined by its wild variance, as well its unmistakably singular authorship. Everything on hand both pops and bounces, Boucher's every musical move as natural as the last, confirming her status as one of the most unique voices working in pop music today.
The five members of Foals harbor an audible affinity for the harder side of the Foo Fighters' discography, wedging that decreasingly relevant storm of distorted guitars and raspy yelps into their otherwise lithe and spacious arena rock sound. The pairing has born uneven results in the past, but What Went Down finds the Oxford fellows finally locating the sweet spot between 90's bombast and modern U.K. rock 'n' roll. While the self-titled opener gives itself all the way over to the former styling, most tracks here split the difference, songs like Albatross and Night Swimmers alternating between kinetic six-string specificity and speaker-ruining tidal waves of sound. No one does big quite like Foals, and their latest adds another ten songs to their collection of sky-scraping anthems.
Panda Bear albums tend to open with a billowy, inviting, and short-lived number, and while Sequential Circuits, the track that kicks off Grim Reaper, does little to buck this trend, there's a swampy tension just beneath the surface that warns of things to come. Noah Lennox's 2015 solo effort is as mind-melting and enveloping as we've come to expect from the Animal Collective figurehead, but a grimy, itchy sense of unrest hangs over nearly all the proceedings. Mr. Noah might be melodically immaculate, but there's a palpable distress in its descending choruses, and lead single Boys Latin opens with a swampy churning that casts doubt on all the glittery proceedings that follow. Lennox will always favor the light to the darkness, but Grim Reaper finds one of our primary musical optimists allowing some shade to enter his work, and the results are captivating.
Having spent so many years surrounded with innumerable fellow musicians and collaborators, who could have guessed that the most beloved album of Sufjan Stevens' career would primarily be a solo outing? Carrie and Lowell finds the orchestral pop mastermind stripping his sound down to its basest elements in order to craft far and away his most personal LP to date. The disc takes its name from Stevens' parents, his complicated relationship with the former driving this heartbroken tale of loss, depression, hope, and redemption. Most frequently operating with one instrument at a time, the 11 tracks found here represent an Elliott Smith-level bloodletting, one that always prioritizes emotional clarity and honesty over attempting to impress with virtuoso musicianship, leaving behind a trail of tears in its wake.
It's lucky for us that Courtney Barnett ever decided to pick up a guitar, because she could have made it just as easily as a writer of short stories. The Australian singer/songwriter pens some of the most unique lyrics in music today, spinning one yarn after another, each fitted with exacting, unexpected details that separate her tales from those of her peers. Wether describing a crush at the local swimming pool (Aqua Profunda!) or projecting suicidal thoughts onto a young service industry worker (Elevator Operator), Barnett's way with words is infallible, prompting one revisitation after another in order to mine for all the jewels buried inside of her knotty recitations. Her ear for melody doesn't hurt either, as seen on the speedy, snappy Nobody Really Cares If You Come to the Party and album stand-out Depreston, but it's those mysterious musings that have me coming back again and again, eager to sit and think to myself.
At first listen, you'd be forgiven for believing all of Summertime '06 was produced by the very same beatsmith, despite the fact that the hour-long double disc is the product of many cooks working in the very same kitchen. By far the most immediately cohesive hip hop album of 2015, '06 recalls Staples' youthful days of running with the Crips, pairing stomach-turning tales of violence and misogyny with something approximating nostalgia, all playing out over nocturnal, minimal instrumentals. An utter rejection of 'Conscious Rap,' Staples' studio debut is sinister and grimy, only the weary, agitated beats betraying a terror and stress that the MC refuses voice. Those who pine for the old days of gangster rap ought to be careful what they wish for, because Summertime '06 is known to raise blood pressure, and cause sleepless nights.
One of the most devise albums to meet the world in many moons, Currents is the sound of a beloved young artists wadding up everything that has worked for them in the past, and throwing it in the trash. Having jostled their way to the front of the indie music pack with Lonerism's sumptuous psyche rock, Kevin Parker and company used 2015 to bring their aesthetic back to the 80's, their newest LP consisting of one exquisitely detailed soft rock stunner after the other. While singles like 'Cause I'm a Man and Eventually play as well out of car and laptop speakers as just about anything from last year, there's nothing quite like experiencing the LP in headphones, where each slight sonic deviation and impressionistic twist is given its full due. An endless parade of grace notes and flourishes, Currents is rich enough with detail that there's always something new to discover, no matter how many times you've pressed play.
Staring at the album cover for Jamie XX's long-anticipated debut LP almost feels like looking at the playlist, the kaleidoscopic image seen above perfectly encapsulating the bright, varied soundworld of In Colour. Playing out over eleven tracks and taking a bow right after the 40 minute mark, the disc somehow finds time and space for ascending dance-floor fillers (Gosh), chill-wave-y variety shows (Sleep Sound), hip hop radio bangers (I Know There's Gonna Be [Good Times]), bright, ruminating instrumentals (The Rest is Noise), lovelorn trip hop (Seesaw), and enormous house anthems (Loud Places), synthesizing them all into the very musical pallet. As replete with feeling as it is variety, In Colour is an often wordless album that exudes enough emotion to make even the most celebrated lyricist green with envy. There's no point in describing Jamie XX within the context of a single genre, or even several; no matter what box you try to put the super producer in, he will inevitably break out.
When Josh Tillman left Fleet Foxes back in early 2012, it was easy to wonder why the indie rock journeyman would exit such an up-and-coming outfit to go it alone. Four years have passed since then, and not only have we not heard a peep from the Foxes' camp ever since, Tillman has created a masterpiece in the openly sarcastic, brazenly bizarre, and deeply heartfelt I Love You, Honeybear. A collection of ballads dedicated to his wife, Emma Tillman, the record is a gorgeous 45 minutes of pianos, strings, guitars, scathing self-diminishment, and personal growth. The Father is undoubtably a glass-half-empty type, but while the lyrics here are unabashedly cynical, Honeybear finds their author working past his pessimism, and gaining strength through both love and compassion. Alternating between stand-up routine antics (The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment), piss-and-vinegar frustration (The Ideal Husband), and soulful mourning (Holy Shit), it takes Misty's trudge through the wasteland of despair to bring the restorative powers of a song like I Went to the Store One Day or Chateau Lobby 4 (in C for Two Virgins) such awe-inspiring gravity. Honeybear is like reading the diary of a brilliant, tortured artist, and while his journey isn't exactly one to be envied, the ultimate feeling of solace he finds is worth enduring any number of woes.
What is there to say about To Pimp a Butterfly that hasn't already been uttered, written, texted, or blogged since it set the world on fire back in March of last year? A monumental 78 minute offering whose level of ambition knows no peer, Lamar's follow-up to Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is novelistic in the truest sense of the word, challenging its listeners with a bevy of sounds and ideas from first moment to last. Though its length and complexity served to irk those who wanted to hear a 'fun' Kendrick album, the MC made a massive bet on himself, and is now raking in all of the winnings. A deep-album cut was cited by the most powerful man in the world as his favorite song of 2015, one of its only pop-leaning numbers became a rallying cry for social justice, and it's the near-unanimous pick for album of the year. Perhaps most impressively, the disc prompted a type of immediate internet reaction I wasn't aware still existed in the age of instant gratification: silence. There was and is too much going on here to justify making a snap judgement, prompting critics and listeners to remain mum for almost a week until its many notions and arguments had time to calcify in peoples' minds.
Such is the power of Butterfly, an album the defies any and all easy classifications, exploring race in modern America with more bravery, confusion, and honestly than any other rapper would have dared. As if everything found in the first hour+ weren't bold and uncompromising enough, Lamar ends the album by resurrecting Tupac Shakur from the grave in order to have a philosophical chat about crime, violence, poverty, and social upheaval. At first glance, their Compton upbringing would seem to be the only real connection between Kendrick and his idol, but the conflict at To Pimp a Butterfly's core is one that the late great had to contend with as well. How does one react to being anointed, going from aspiring superstar to representative of a genre and a people almost over-night? When afforded this level of fame and exposure, how does one use their voice to promote positivity and effect change, while refusing to allow his or her image to be distorted by both their handlers and the masses? How does one transition from important black artist to important black leader? Kendrick isn't about to claim he has the answers, but the way he wrestles with the questions is both eye-opening and mind-expanding. As academically rigorous as it spiritually poignant, To Pimp a Butterfly is a classic on arrival, a hip hop album that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the genre's all time greats, and a perfect encapsulation of 2015's unique brand of civil unrest. Its level of accomplishment cannot be over-stated.