Best albums of 2015: 20 to 11

AOTY 2015 20-11 college: Raury, Lianne La Havas, Dornik, Eska (1448x815)Contrary to what the collage above may lead you to think, albums 20 to 11 are not an all-black soirée – I just wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to get the gorgeous faces of Raury, Lianne La Havas, Dornik and Eska on a single spread.

We’re steaming towards the top-crop by way of these first 10 phenomenal records, which include avant-garde works, retro-chic disco and stupendous acts of personal atonement.

20. Golden Rules – Golden Ticket
19. Jamie xx – In Colour
18. Dornik – Dornik
17. Paul Weller – Saturns Pattern
16. Eska – Eska
15. Raury – All We Need
14. The Milk – Favourite Worry
13. Björk – Vulnicura
12. Lianne La Havas – Blood
11. Rae Morris – Unguarded

See my entire albums of 2015 series.

Golden Rules - Golden Ticket, 50020. Golden Rules – Golden Ticket
“I just bought a ticket to a conversation,” chats Florida rapper Eric Biddines in the final verse of Golden Ticket’s title track. Fitting words for an album that is hip hop at its most inviting. You get the sense that he and London producer Paul White were having tonnes of fun working together, flipping records and swapping stories. And their energy has been imprinted onto Golden Ticket, which has an old-school hip hop sensibility (Blackalicious, OutKast) sautéed in southern funk and blues. It’s laid back (‘Auntie Pearl’s House’), sensual (‘Play Some Luther’) and full of everyday encouragement (‘Never Die (feat. Yasiin Boy)’). This isn’t the Wonka Factory, but the words of Charlie Bucket’s grandpa apply here, too: Golden Ticket is a chance for a golden day.

Jamie xx - In Colour, 50019. Jamie xx – In Colour
In Colour is a gift for self-identifying music aficionados, many of whom were the first to discover the music of this reclusive beatmaker, as part of The xx, and share it with their friends. The thirst for The xx’s formula of minimalist indie rock has lifted the band to towering heights and inspired dozens of immatators. So what’s pleasing is that Jamie xx’s debut proves to be original, absorbing and plain colourful. From steel pan drums (‘Obvs’), to daydream-ready loops (‘Sleep Sound’), to the contrast of softy spoken vocals with the reality of clubbing (‘Loud Places’), this is an album of deep hues that shows more sides to this skilful producer.

Dornik - Dornik, 50018. Dornik – Dornik
My view: “More unusual than his stage name is the fact Dornik brings these threads of mellow jazz, faint techno and soulful R&B together in a manner that’s consistently luxurious. Rubber meets tarmac, white wine meets red lips and the past meets the future in this dreamlike debut from the UK’s breakout R&B prince. In time, this new age Casanova could cause a real stir for his US counterparts.”

Paul Weller - Saturns Pattern, 50017. Paul Weller – Saturns Pattern
Paul Weller isn’t one for hyperbole. He prefers to let his music do the talking. Which it does: spectacularly. Driving piano chords, throbbing guitar patterns and steady harmonies form the basis for these elongated, polyrhythmic songs. Many of them transition through more than one movement, and are a gripping amalgam of rock, alternative and soul, that bring to mind The Jam, The Who, Paul McCartney and Wings, The Boomtown Rats and Pink Floyd. Saturns Pattern is rhythmically huge, like a thunderous rock opera, yet it flows like a steady stream, filled with subtly and momentary perspectives that grip you throughout. This is Weller at his finest.

Eska - Eska, 50016. Eska – Eska
Eska Mtungwazi has been touring and teaching music for years. She’s a seasoned pro, who’s worked with the likes of Nitin Sawhney, Ty, The Cinematic Orchestra, Zero 7, Courtney Pine and Tony Allen. Even so, her self-titled debut represents one of this year’s most heartening stories of perseverance in music. Aided by producers Matthew Herbert and David Okumu, Eska regained her confidence, and found her voice, on a record that cartwheels from jazz, to ska, to Indian Afrobeat, to lush downtempo, light gospel and many other unique moments. Some people often have expectations that a black singer should sound a certain way, and Eska boldly breaks those bonds.

Raury - All We Need, 50015. Raury – All We Need
To paraphrase a friend: “There’s something special going on with Raury. It might not be spiritual or supernatural, but there’s something”. That something is a self-belief and focus that far exceeds his tender 19 years. The Atlanta-born hip hop prodigy’s debut album, All We Need, is a bright spark in what has been a tumultuous year for unity between nations and peoples. Through his conscious passages, he calls out the desensitisation and separation at play in our world (Forbidden Knowledge, Peace Prevail), and brings his self-taught guitar skills to bear on catchy hybrids of folk and hip hop (Devil’s Whisper, Crystal Express). Evoking André 3000, Bill Withers and even Barry White in spots, Raury’s debut is essential listening for all those who crave more inventiveness from hip hop.

The Milk - Favourite Worry, 50014. The Milk – Favourite Worry
It looked as though The Milk were down and out following their embryonic debut album. But the Essex four-piece has bounced back with a dragon-punch of a soul record that proves their musicianship has grown in their time away from the airwaves. Favourite Worry, say the band, is born of the difficulties we all face as we grow and transition in life. The group have generated scintillating soul and funk that’s in sync with the genre’s godfathers (Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, Issac Hayes), while solidifying their own musical identity. Frontman Rick Nunn pushes his omniferous vocals to mountainous heights. A sizzling, old-school soul record that helps you face your contemporary woes.

Bjork - Vulnicura, 50013. Björk – Vulnicura
My view: “Björk has long been the heiress to throne of avant-garde music, and the soundscape of Vulnicura is experimental, ambient and, yet, oddly human. Quiet, sorrowful string chords can be heard throughout, creating a beautifully sombre classical hollow into which Björk sheds her sorry regrets in her stately Icelandic accent. You may not have lived or loved long enough to feel the true depth of Vulnicura, but it will still do a number on the curious heart.”

Lianne La Havas - Blood, 50012. Lianne La Havas – Blood
My view: “You have to admire La Havas: musically, Blood is a mercurial fusion of sounds at a time when the label ‘singer-songwriter’ has never been more rigid as an overused term for guitar-playing musicians. La Havas the guitarist is here, strumming delectable melodies that beg to be repeated late into the evening (‘Midnight’). Yet, by incorporating a buffet of influences, from Prince and Erykah Badu, to Neneh Cherry and Jill Scott, she has taken herself – and the listener – out of this oversubscribed musical comfort zone.”

Rae Morris - Unguarded, 50011. Rae Morris – Unguarded
Rae Morris has a voice whose pearlescent timbre alone cloaks you in lamb’s wool and lifts you skyward; were it not for her graceful emotional lows, Morris’s voice (and the listener) would barely touch the ground. Unguarded is an impassioned collection of piano-led love songs that are gracefully executed by Morris and her collaborators. There are melodic treats aplenty (‘Unguarded’, ‘Cold’), but it’s Morris’s vocal sophistication that truly captivates. An album of transfixing emotion that highlights the power of this talented piano-playing vocalist.

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See my entire albums of 2015 series.

Images: college (clockwise from top left) Raury (L oveRenaissance/PR); Lianne La Havas (John-Paul Pietrus); Dornik (Coda Agency/PR); Eska (Jaroslav Moravec). Images and photos belong to respective parties