It’s Christmas so let’s not fuck around. Below you will find the top 20 albums of the year, as decided by HeadStuff contributors. Do also take a gander at our best 25 tracks of the year, too.
Standout Track: ‘Trembling Hands’
Henry Kohen is a bit of a hero, really. Loaded with youth, passion and boundless energy, he’s turned his Mylets project into a compelling, laser-focused statement in a very short space of time. Arizona is a quick enough listen at just 28 minutes but Kohen makes each one count, packing in aggressive fire worthy of Nine Inch Nails comparisons (‘Trembling Hands’), thoughtful duality (‘Ampersand’) and moments of poignant contemplation (‘Homes’). Arizona is equal parts loud and quiet, feverish and delicate and always, always interesting. | Dave Hanratty
Standout Track: ‘Leaving The City’
Everything about this album and its release felt surprisingly conventional for an artist as esoteric as Joanna Newsom. There are no mammoth, solo symphonies present and not only did she give us these things called ‘singles’ prior to Divers being dropped, but there were also some sort of “musical video” accompanying each one (it’ll never last). Still though, no one does convention quite like Newsom. Her incomparable lyricism, coupled with that sumptuous caterwaul she employs, imbues her rich storytelling and evocative imagery with an almost painful, wistful sincerity. ”Divers” is a 7 minute ballad that still doesn’t feel long enough while “Leaving the city” might the first thing she released that could just win over the undecided. Even if this might not appear to be her most ambitious work, it’s still a colossal achievement. | Mark Conroy
Standout Track: ’I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’
Jamie xx’s In Colour may be a lean 42 minutes but people forget that it was an album five years in the making. Even in a year of ambitious, taking-the-piss with their length grand narratives (To Pimp A Butterfly, The Most Lamentable Tragedy), few works of 2015 feel as meticulously crafted as this one. It’s both a love letter to- and flawless digestion of-all of the endless hordes of underground dance and whatever else Jamie Smith presumably soaked up in his musically formative years. There are those, AKA the horribly misguided, that see this chaotic collection as an uneasy marriage but 11 great songs is still, 11 great songs.
Every sample, breakbeat and vocal contribution feels so painstakingly placed and thought about that In Colour can somehow move seamlessly from rave’s first wave (‘Gosh’),to pop perfection(‘Loud places’) to tropical acid rap (‘Good Times’) and back to domineering yet somehow uplifting deep house (‘The Rest of Noise’). It’s only when that groove of closer ‘Girl’ enters your skull – almost osmotically – like some lovely disease do you realise how refreshing this guy can make nostalgia sound like. Even if it takes him another five years to release something half as good as this, it’ll still be worth the wait. | Mark Conroy
Standout Track: ‘Good For You’
It’s always interesting when an artist, be they seemingly surface pop or otherwise, takes a risk. It’s also quite amusing when people scoff in the direction of Selena Gomez for daring to adopt strong writing and a pointed change of character. The hipster reinvention of Justin Bieber is apparently fine but praising Selena Gomez is high treason. To be entirely fair to Bieber, dude’s got some tunes. Are any of them as immediately and continually arresting as ‘Good For You’, though? Not even close.
‘Good For You’ – the more subtle solo version that doesn’t sport a lame A$AP Rocky cameo – is hands down the best pop song of 2015 and indeed one of the finest where any genre is concerned. Though Revival would favour the bouncier, Rocky-assisted version, it marked a smooth transition from a previously straightforward demographic-centric product to a more considered, intriguing artist. Revival isn’t perfect – ‘Body Heat’, for instance, is hollow and box-ticking – but it’s a layered pop triumph for the most part, with the title track, ‘Hands to Myself’, ‘Same Old Love’ and ‘Me & The Rhythm’ all standing gloriously tall. | Dave Hanratty
Culture Of Volume
Standout Track: ‘Carousel’
In 2014, I spoke to William Doyle about East India Youth and what he wanted to achieve by abandoning his indie rock background for the endless possibilities of his laptop. “Changing the faceless way of electronic music is having me look right down the barrel of the lens into camera,” the Bournemouth musician said, using his ‘Looking For Someone’ video as an example of his ethos. “Being confrontational with it.”
On the follow-up to Total Strife Forever, and his XL debut, the artist fully embraces the spotlight. He’s a blur on the cover, but the confidence of his creative approach and the immediacy of many of these efforts bring him brilliantly into focus. He also spoke then of his admiration for the sonic collisions on Sufjan Stevens’ Age Of Adz. That influence bears out here, as icy Pet Shop Boys pop and (on the achingly beautiful ‘Carousel’) Scott Walker melancholy sit alongside experimental blizzards and techno workouts.
Taking a leaf out of his pal Brian Eno’s book, he gets the juxtaposition just right, veering away from pretentious cul-de-sacs to locate the emotion. The laser-point precision might make this too mannered for some but when, rather than if, the sharply-dressed fella loosens his tie in the future, a real masterpiece could be on the way. As an assured step forward, Culture Of Volume marks William Doyle out as an artist whose path you really should follow. | Craig Fitzpatrick
Standout Track: ‘Brought to the Water’
“Not as good as Sunbather”, they said, but is that really fair? Sunbather was something of an instant classic. New Bermuda is a dense experience that reveals itself over time. Deafheaven could so very easily have managed expectations in a safe fashion and delivered Sunbather II. Thankfully, they decided to expand their sonic horizons, birthing a pensive, considered behemoth that features arguably vocalist George Clarke’s finest hour. Small moments carry big weight, not least Clarke’s chomping-at-the-bit snarl that sends opening track ‘Brought to the Water’ to the heavens, scraping the sky with talons razor-sharp and precise. New Bermuda is its own beautiful beast. | Dave Hanratty
Standout Track: ‘NEW COKE’
One of the most societally-conscious records of 2015 sees Los Angeles noise heroes HEALTH saunter up to their own mortality with a knowing, apathetic shrug. Though DEATH MAGIC is permeated by the quartet’s usual glitch-addled spark, this is a deeply wounded narrative. The lyrics for the oppressive, mesmerising ‘NEW COKE’ alone speak to many of the world’s modern ills:
“Let the guns go off / Let the bombs explode / Let the lights go dark / Life is good”
Whether a pitch dark commentary on an increasingly troubling state of affairs or speaking to an internal struggle, the sentiment is stark, brutal and strangely soothing. HEALTH have always been skilled at such a mix and though DEATH MAGIC sees Jupiter Keyes cling perhaps a touch too tight to a specific vocal cloth, the likes of the crushing ‘STONEFIST’, the disco stomp of ‘L.A. LOOKS’ and the Pet Shop Boys-riffic ‘FLESH WORLD’ all pierce through like brilliant light. | Dave Hanratty
Carrie & Lowell
Standout Track: ‘Should Have Known Better’
“Drunk and Afraid” are the words that Sufjan Stevens uses to describe himself, on the soul-crushing ‘Eugene’, as he sits alone in a hotel room and records some of this album on his iPhone. The DIY method is fitting. It’s as if none of these songs were written down or even thought about before he sat down to record, but rather the raw emotive power of his own grief willed these words into being when he sang them for the first time. This is not to say that that the breath-taking lyrics are half-arsed or that they’ll sully the case to be made for this man being one’s his generation’s finest songwriters because they aren’t and he still is. By the closer, ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’, Stevens finds himself drained to inch of his life and we’re right there alongside him.
The impetus for the creation of the record – the death of a mother who Stevens never really knew as he much as he would have liked – shrouds the album in a paralysing and suffocating sense of sadness. So when on “Fourth of July”, Stevens is made to decide should “the body be cast” by a coroner, it almost physically pains him to ask of the deceased; “Do you find it alright, my Dragonfly?”. Carrie & Lowell is an album that terrifies as much it much as it enthrals me. I dread the day it becomes truly relevant but I’m equally comforted by the fact that it sits on my shelf, ever ready to act an unparalleled document of condolence. | Mark Conroy
Before We Forgot How To Dream
Standout Track: ‘Oh Brother’
There’s a certain irony attached to SOAK’s debut album opening with a cacophony of distorted frequencies and white noise titled ‘My Brain’, when what follows is one of the most direct and honest records of the year; a teenage heart opened up, a soul laid bare.
It might be said there’s an unsettling quality about the record. Whether it’s the fragile delivery of the teenage Bridie Monds-Watson, the stripped-back sonic structure, or the acute observations of love and family that run throughout, there’s a patent vulnerability on show. Ordinarily, there may be a risk of sounding patronising – almost churlish – as a prodigious talent urging the listener to ‘B a noBody’, or declaring “I don’t think they know what love is” as she does on ‘Sea Creatures’, but the purity of form leaves no doubt that her musings are simply heartfelt reflections of anxiety and alienation; teenage shit, basically.
But beyond that is an unmistakable brilliance, an ability to bounce from voice-and-guitar confessionals to Bjorkian etherealism. If there’s a weakness to this excellent opening salvo, it’s that ‘delicate’ comes at the cost of ‘definitive’; a talent this authentic deserves the authority to match. When that arrives, superstardom may well follow. | Colm O’Regan
Standout Track: ‘Talking To My Diary’
To Pimp A Butterfly will get all the “important album” tags in critical essays, but there wasn’t a more surprising, immersive and downright playable rap album in 2015 than Compton. Whereas Jay Z’s American Gangster, a faux soundtrack to the 2007 film of same name and his last great album, rejuvenated Hova by allowing him to step outside of himself and inhabit the character of Frank Lucas, Dre’s faux soundtrack to Straight Outta Compton works for precisely the opposite reason. Seeing his “younger self” (actor Corey Hawkins) on the set of the NWA biopic inspired self-reflection and lit a fire under hip-hop’s first billionaire. In an instant, the mythical Detox was scrapped (and if the lumpen likes of ‘I Need A Doctor’ were anything to go by, good riddance) as Andre Young relocated his ruthless streak and raced against a deadline.
The adrenaline served him well, as Compton serves up an intoxicating blend of modern hip-hop with imperious G-funk nods dotted along the way, re-establishing the producer as perhaps the genre’s greatest ever, and certainly the only one to straddle decades and still sound relevant. Given its filmic feel, you could almost cast him in a director’s role – even if a beat isn’t his, his deft touch is everywhere, while that knack for identifying talent is undeniable. From Snoop and Em to fresh voices like Anderson .Paak, every rapper on the LP spits lines as if its their last ever verse. Meanwhile, Kendrick Lamar could well prove to be his greatest ever spot, and his influence abounds far beyond his three mesmeric features. The ultimate word goes to Dre, however, with Compton ending on a genuinely emotional note as he surveys a unique career and salutes old friends. If it is indeed his curtain call, he goes out on top. | Craig Fitzpatrick
This Chemical Sea
Standout Track: ‘Séance of Light’
While Richie Egan has always maintained that Jape is a band project, it’s hard to get beyond the fact that it seems to morph to his individual influence. Making this harder still, it’s a close-to-indisputable fact that This Chemical Sea is the record of one man; a man who suffered bereavement, moved to a new location, became a father; a man who, for better or worse, is ageing; but most of all, a unique talent who has unequivocally found his sound.
For all of Egan’s projects and talents, from Redneck Manifesto to Dimman and any number of other collaborations and ventures, his main output always betrayed the duality of an acoustic singer-songwriter who was also an electronic obsessive. Those influences are now married, in the most glorious of matrimonies. Ritual is, in this writer’s not-so-humble opinion, one of the finest records of the last decade, but there’s no arguing that following ‘Graveyard’ with ‘Phil Lynott’ might not qualify as coherent. With this, his fifth full-length effort, it’s come together like never before.
At some points Hot Chip spring to mind, and Caribou at others, but Richie – sorry, Jape – is an overpowering force for 10 tracks so tightly woven that you barely even notice the intrusion of Conor O’Brien towards its conclusion. Thematically, lyrically, atmospherically, melodically; by any measure you wish, this is a meisterwerk. Until album number six, that is. There’s a sense that he’s just getting started. | Colm O’Regan
Standout Track: ‘Eventually’
There is certainly no question that we have moved past the point where a rock band heading to more electronic pastures will be accused of abandoning their roots. Even the most conservative, rolling stone-reading, Dad Rocker has to admit that we’ve almost exhausted the tried and tested method of a purely guitar driven four piece and that modern groups can only get so far with it. These days, it’s almost become, dare I say it, a natural progression .So thank god for a band like Tame Impala, who make an uneasy time for indie heads a little less uncertain by showing us how fun and seamless that transition can be.
Trust Kevin Parker to turn a coked up, shroom trip and LA drive as sound-tracked by the Bee Gees into the most danceable, disco infused record of 2015. The central irony to Currents, though, is that Parker essentially remains to be his hermetic self, full of crippling introversion and naïve relationship choices. He has somehow made an album that is both only for himself but also for everyone else. For Parker, Solitude is still bliss but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t make it sound inviting. | Mark Conroy
The Pale Emperor
Standout Track: ‘Killing Strangers’
Remember when the media blamed a rock star for gun crime? Days long gone, of course, and it’s almost as long since Marilyn Manson released an album worthy of more than a listen or two. The artist born Brian Warner is no source of outrage in 2015, his character now subsumed harmlessly into the pop culture panoply, much like the beauty and the monster whose names he chose to combine for his moniker. If he’s spent over a decade grappling noisily with this cultural obsolescence, The Pale Emperor found him retreating to his court to reacquaint himself with his musical strengths. Angle-grinder to the abyss powered off, Manson opted for a bluesy groove or 10 instead.
Collaborating with film and video game composer Tyler Bates (who sandblasts past indulgences for a leaner approach), he cooked up a batch of songs that are often Holy Wood levels of good. With Jim Morrison as a major influence and Manson recently stating that melody writing was now his main focus, The Pale Emperor is no lyrical masterclass, relying as it does on tired old satanic tropes. But stand-out ‘Killing Strangers’ doesn’t look for the shocks it once would have, instead ending up as an examination of the PTSD of his father, a Vietnam vet, while the record also ends with Manson meditating on the loss of his mother. In between, this is glammy, good-time rock ‘n’ roll bursting with hooks and urgency. If his decadent empire has been crumbling, on this form, he’s still the best man to soundtrack the last party before the Goths scale the walls. | Craig Fitzpatrick
Beauty Behind the Madness
Standout Track: ‘The Hills’
The weight of expectation for Beauty Behind the Madness must have pushed down at least somewhat heavily on the shoulders of The Weeknd. After all, it was his first album release since becoming one of the biggest stars in the music industry on the back of a string of hit singles and high profile collaborations with the likes of Ariana Grande. It has been a fascinating transition from dark, gritty underground cult favourite to massive pop star.
With Beauty Behind the Madness he manages to handle the transition quite well, sticking to many of the themes that attracted his core audience in the first place and meshing them with much more upbeat, Michael Jackson-influenced sound overall. While it isn’t the total classic that many had hoped for, it’s still one of the year’s best and has very few missteps. ‘The Hills’, ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, ‘Earned It’ and ‘Tell Your Friends’ in particular belong on any year-end playlist. | Joshua Hughes
I Love You, Honeybear
Standout Track: ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment’
In the brilliant ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment’, the titular visitor – albeit in his Father John Misty guise – sings, “I hate the soulful affectation that white girls put on”.
It’s a good line in itself, but in the context of I Love You, Honeybear as a whole, it’s brilliant; in an album stuffed with pithy one liners and wry wisecracks, it’s the one to stand out. Pretence, you see, could equally be used to describe the work of Tillman, who – despite his shaggy beard, acoustic guitar, and Fleet Foxes pedigree – is very different from your archetypal troubadour. In fact, he’s as far from the typical soul-bearing singer-songwriter as a WASPy college girl is to Sarah Vaughan. The slightest danger of sounding earnest, and there’s a corrosive joke to follow. He’s the sort who couldn’t say something romantic without making a comedy fart noise afterwards. That juxtaposition is the heart of a record that wears a smirk on its sleeve; one on which the most ostensibly romantic track is titled ‘While You’re Smiling And Astride Me’.
But the ultimate contradiction is that beautiful songwriting carries the day. With delicate melodies and sterling production (tackled in tandem with Jonathan Wilson), the sonic texture is effortlessly charming – which makes the disarming and disorienting Misty that much more compelling. | Colm O’Regan
Standout Track: ‘Norf Norf’
It was quite the year for Odd Future and friends as Tyler, The Creator released arguably his best album to date, The Internet dropped the mesmerising Ego Death and Earl Sweatshirt brought out the fantastic I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. A close associate of Sweatshirt in particular, Vince Staples has emerged from the OF shadow to become a huge star in his own right. Staples has in many ways taken the spot that Earl discarded having released consecutive albums that are as un-radio-friendly as humanly possible. Summertime ’06 is a dark, gritty coming of age tale that belongs in the company of To Pimp A Butterfly and Black Messiah when it comes to incredibly important records released in the last twelve months that describe the demoralising, often tragic experience of young, black males in the United States.
Staples is a tremendous lyricist with the delivery to match, while the production – largely overseen by No I.D. – is as volatile as it is pleasing and appropriate. It is different from his peers and in some ways reminiscent of 2Pac’s more visceral songs in the sense that Staples brings the listener into the streets themselves, telling the stories of those who inhabit them. For someone of Staples’ age (just 21 while this album was produced), Summertime ’06 is a truly stunning achievement. | Joshua Hughes
Standout Track: ‘Really Love’
Out of nowhere, it was time for a major return. Yep, that time was the end of 2014, but given the impact of D’Angelo‘s pinch-me-is-this-real? comeback, right after ten thousand journos had already handed in their end-of-year lists, Black Messiah had to get a shout. Originally slated to arrive this year, its Virginian creator rushed it out in the wake of escalating police brutality in the US and the outrageous decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. Here, finally, was the MIA star to tell us what was going on with Marvin Gaye authority (‘The Charade”s headshake of “all we wanted was a chance to talk, ‘stead we only got outlined in chalk” seemed to sum it all up) and soothe the brow with his third masterpiece in a row.
The title suggested a Panther-like agenda, and the ferocious rattle of the preacher-fronted ‘1000 Deaths’ was civil unrest as song, but overall D’Angelo was calling, with tender power, for mutual understanding. The excellent Vanguard band, given co-billing, brought the new guitar master into rockier territory than before, but trying to namecheck genres and influences is a fool’s game when dealing with D’Angelo. After 15 years away, after the addiction rumours, car crashes and disappearing abs, the man was still making the art of creation look as effortless as his millennial muscle flexing. Like Prince in the ’80s, he deals in alchemy. Just listen to ‘Really Love’ – the purity of a McCartney-Lennon love song raised to the heavens with a floating, Spanish-tinged guitar arrangement – and reassess whether you care that this didn’t quite fit the calendar. Sorry, but we couldn’t wait until the Albums Of The Decade list to heap on the praise. | Craig Fitzpatrick
Holding Hands With Jamie
Standout Track: ‘Pears for Lunch’
In truth, Holding Hands With Jamie wasn’t the album I expected or even wanted. See I’m the selfish impatient type who would have been more than happy with getting ‘Lawman’ variations 10 times, thanks. Instead, for their debut proper, Girl Band ignored expectations, hype and indeed convention as they unleashed an exceptional, deeply personal and rather important body of work.
That Holding Hands With Jamie deals explicitly with vocalist Dara Kiely’s struggles with mental health is no secret. That he turns such raw, painful material into wonderful noise and powerful ownership is both admirable and quite astounding. The thing about Girl Band is that, pretentious as it may sound, you simply get it or you don’t. Kiely has a sharp tongue, often acidic, and he turns every-day minutiae into occasionally terrifying quicksand.
Turned inward, his knives leave marks. ‘Pears for Lunch’ is the closest we’re likely to get to a Girl Band pop single and it’s fucking amazing when it all kicks in and Kiely screams, screams, screams. Surrounded by a maelstrom, he soars. ‘Paul’ is up there with ‘Lawman’ though it somehow rides the crest of a murkier wave. ‘The Witch Doctor’ is a short horror film. Interludes like ‘The Last Riddle’ and ‘Texting an Alien’ help this barbed story coalesce. There are easier listens this year, but few as fascinating. | Dave Hanratty
Standout Track: ‘Kill V. Maim’
Pop, generally, is about polish. Whether it’s the rent-a-Swede approach demonstrated by T-Swift on 1989, the no-strings balladry of Adele, or even the punky, dynamic approach of, say, Gaga or Charli XCX, the best – and most successful – practitioners are for the most part paragons of efficiency. There’s scarcely a pick of fat; no wasted movement.
And then, there’s Claire Boucher. Grimes, you see, is different. For one, she’s flying solo; writing, producing and performing her album on her Tobler, she wouldn’t even let someone else do the fucking cover art. In the hands of a less capable artist, it would have been a sprawling, formless mess. Instead, it’s an unmitigated triumph. From the Euro-trance of ‘Realiti’ to the nu-metal backbone of ‘SCREAM’, nothing is beyond her seemingly limitless scope. The most accessible ‘pop’ tune on the record, ‘California’, is – between her hazy vocals and kitchen sink-esque deployment of rhythm and reverbs – a complex tapestry, but the beauty of the record is how Grimes has somehow streamlined everything into something not merely palatable, but truly brilliant.
Never, of course, is that more plainly obvious than on ‘Kill V. Maim’, already discussed on our Best Songs list. It’s a microcosmic illustration of Art Angels as a whole; crazy and chaotic, yet considered and, most of all, utterly captivating. | Colm O’Regan
To Pimp A Butterfly
Standout Track: ‘Alright’
Three classic solo albums in and Kendrick Lamar has already cemented his status as one of the finest musicians of his generation and that may be a modest assessment of the situation given the sheer quality and consistency of his work. He had an incredible year outside of this, playing a starring role on Dr. Dre’s Compton and making guest appearances on practically every major hip-hop release outside of that. However, he saved his best work for To Pimp A Butterfly which was hailed by all as an instant-classic and is sure to feature at the top of more year end lists than any other. Lamar is not exactly parsimonious when it comes to producing high-concept work, but even by his standards To Pimp A Butterfly is extravagant.
Each song plays a different role in a difficult-to-interpret allegory that is only really spelled out at the end during the conversation with the long-term deceased Tupac Shakur, who the record is also an extended tribute to. Within this he manages to comment on a wide range of political and social themes while also capturing the spirit of the post-Ferguson United States better than anyone other than D’Angelo. The album is, of course, stunning both lyrically and musically with the likes of ‘King Kunta’, ‘Alright’, ‘These Walls’ and ‘How Much A Dollar Cost’ among the many highlights. | Joshua Hughes