Culture, Music

Best albums of 2015: top 10

AOTY 2015 10-1 college: Ghostpoet, Andreya Triana, Little Boots, Blur (1448x815)Here we are: after 40 albums, we’ve reached 2015’s top 10. Before we get to the albums themselves, allow me to briefly reflect on the year that was and what it meant for music.

In more ways than one, 2015 has been a year of conservatism: UK voters elected the Conservative party for its second consecutive term; acts of terror have caused many to adopt conservative, even prejudicial, attitudes towards those that do not share their skin colour, beliefs or culture; and, in the world of music, known quantities continue to attract the most marketing dollars, media attention and consumer sales. On the surface, it would seem that the nonconformists, the mavericks, the idealists and those that would dare to dream have all been ignored.

Accept they haven’t. From the millions of artists and creators honing their talents and sharing them with the world via the numerous online avenues, to musicians and technologists combining their expertise to change the business of music royalties, and perhaps make it easier for people to make a living off of their creativity in future, 2015 has been a year of perseverance.

Hopefully these final 10 albums will express what I mean by that, each in their own way.

10. Ibeyi – Ibeyi
9. Benjamin Clementine – At Least for Now
8. Little Boots – Working Girl
7. Blur – The Magic Whip
6. BadBadNotGood & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul
5. The Skints – FM
4. Ghostpoet – Shedding Skin
3. Denai Moore – Elsewhere
2. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
1. Andreya Triana – Giants

See my entire albums of 2015 series.

Ibeyi - Ibeyi, 50010. Ibeyi – Ibeyi
The music of French-Cuban twin sisters, Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz, better known as Ibeyi, is exotic and familiar in splendid ways. It’s a musical portrait of the sisters and a tribute to their late father, the famed Cuban percussionist Anga Diaz (Irakere, Buena Vista Social Club). Lisa-Kaindé’s earthy vocals, which often brings to mind Emilíana Torrini, lies between angelic (‘Behind the Curtain’) and haunting (‘Mama Says’), while Naomi’s counterpoints and harmonies are the perfect compliment.

Produced by Richard Russell, and bearing his tactful reserve when it comes to enabling the artists to bring forth their insider character, Ibeyi is an album made to be enjoyed from its inquisitive-sounding opening to its intimate close (‘Singles’). Bringing together piano melodies and subtle electronics, Spanish percussion instruments, such as the cajón and Batá drum, and acappella singing, this unusual amalgam of cultures and instruments feels gloriously natural. Ibeyi is one sister act we must absolutely hear more of.

Benjamin Clementine - At Least for Now, 5009. Benjamin Clementine – At Least for Now
Benjamin Clementine is not your typical estranged artist, though the word definitely applies to the life events that brought him to make his outstanding debut album, At Least for Now. From an early age, Clementine had a taste for the alternative and the archaic, and his album is a work of honest artistic expression.

Classical music is the main ingredient. Taut melodies march along to Clementine’s poetic phrases. Phrases that ponder love (‘Then I Heard a Batchelor’s Cry’), surviving in the Big Smoke (‘London’) and finding one’s place in the world (‘Cornerstone’). His intention brings to mind the distinctive voice of Nina Simone, while the music itself is awash with abnormal tempos and rousing rhythmic combinations. This compassionate troubadour has offers an sincere, powerful and progressive record that is the definition of art.

Little Boots - Working Girl, 5008. Little Boots – Working Girl
The discerning listener’s boss of synth-pop returned this year, and her third album is as charming as its typeface is bold. Little Boots, whose real name is Victoria Hesketh, has been forging her own path in the male-dominated world of music production. But, between copious column inches devoted to Ariana Grande, Little Mix, Adele, or, on the most alternative extreme, FKA Twigs, Björk and Grimes, it seems the market for skilful electro productions married with uncomplicated, yet profoundly catchy, lyrics is a slim one. Lingering with a Metacritic score just below that of her sublime second album, all the shade thrown on Working Girl has stifled what is a satisfying, and well-crafted, concept album.

The familiar territory of the Monday-to-Friday grind serves to be a superb setting for Boots’s blend of 80s dance, honeyed pop harmonies and left-field electronic experiments. Songs that signal the emancipation of the singer from former lovers (‘Real Girl’, ‘Help’) aren’t without their flaws, but even they are the basis for usual synth tests. Where the album truly shines is in its cache of synth-pop splendour, which ranges from dance floor beats (‘No Pressure’), to hypnotic streams of electro (‘Heroine’), to funk-edged pop gold (‘Get Things Done’, ‘The Game’). Circling back to the pop scene and doing her thing in fine style, Working Girl is Little Boots’s tightest album to date.

Blur - The Magic Whip, 5007. Blur – The Magic Whip
Many had longed for a true continuation of the band that brought us ‘Parklife’, ‘Song 2’ and ‘Tender’ as a four-piece. Of course, more than a decade on, the suspicious was there as to whether Damon Albarn, Alex James, Dave Rowntree and Graham Coxon could recapture the magic of Blur, while delivering a record that was genuinely something new – not a mere nostalgia grab. The Magic Whip, which emerged from demos made during an impromptu break in Blur’s 2013 tour, and were subsequently shaped by Coxon and long-time Blur producer Steven Street, is the return that Blur fans deserved: a record of melodic grandeur, hypnotic passages and abstract realism.

What remains of 90s Blur as we knew it is the group’s incessant ability to chase down catchy riffs, and sprinkle their typically British inflections and wordless intonations across the songs (‘Lonesome Street’, ‘I Broadcast’, ‘Go Out’). What’s different is the setting created by soundscapes of swirling synths and stretched acoustics, and the lyrics of Albarn himself, narrating this visit to the Far East, pondering its connections and differences to the West with an anthropologist’s curiosity and a poet’s eye (‘New World Towers’, ‘Pyongyang’, ‘My Terracotta Heart’). It’s not often that a band as beloved as this manages to rekindle the spirit that produced their original hits. If Blur never makes another album, The Magic Whip is a magnificent send off.

BBNG & Ghostface Killah - Sour Soul, 5006. BadBadNotGood & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul
Mood is the heart of BadBadNotGood & Ghostface Killah’s Sour Soul. It’s the key element that makes its mixture of blaxploitation parody and 70s homage come alive. Smudged sunsets, malt whiskey, unsolved murder cases, motels, dank back-alleys and seedy red-light district streets are just some of images that come to mind when you hear the fermented jazz of the Toronto trio.

The ever-prolific Ghostface lays down raps both aggressive and thoughtful, in the guise of a Tarantinian pimp (‘Tone’s Rap’) and a reformed hustler (‘Food’), to name just two examples, on this album of superior mood-setting. Its live instrumentation calls to mind London jazz-hip hop ensemble, Fur, and, with the help of producer Frank Dukes, expresses just why a record of this kind is elevated in way that samples would struggle to match. Sour Soul is one of the most atmospheric albums of the year bar none.

The Skints - FM, 5005. The Skints – FM
Hailing from east London, The Skints are a ska band poised to go supernova. They’ve been around for a solid number of years now, and their first two albums, as well as their captivating cover of Katy B’s ‘On a Mission’ (with multi-instrumentalist Marcia Richards on vocals), have earned them many fans. But in case there was any doubt in the matter, the band’s 2015 album, FM, a gloriously moreish ode to their home city, spells out exactly why every reggae follower and discerning music fan should tune into the Skints’ frequency.

The band enlisted reggae legends Tippa Irie and Horseman to join them for their fictional pirate radio station, which harkens back to the days of cassette tapes, warehouse dub raves and larger-than-life DJs. Into this daylong radio show, recorded in a superbly carefree, Afro-British manner, you are cast from sun-soaked Caribbean doorsteps, to the twang of an urban midnight, and back to the lush, greenery of London’s suburban boroughs. These ska songs encourage you to carry on even though the burden is heavy (‘Tomorrow’), to watch your step (‘Eyes in the Back of My Head’), to have love for your roots (‘Got No Say’), and to keep your mind on the big picture (‘The Forest for the Trees’). Brimming with veracious lyrics and a buffet of raw rhythms, FM is the reggae fix you never knew you needed.

Ghostpoet - Shedding Skin, 5004. Ghostpoet – Shedding Skin
Pioneer of progressive hip hop for the everyman, Obaro Ejimiwe, aka Ghostpoet, has made into my annually top 10 with both his previous records. Shedding Skin surpasses even those exceptional examples of electronic-led conscious hip hop. It is a masterclass of deep melodies, courageous arrangements and astute lyricism.

With each record, Ghostpoet has explored the possibilities presented by using live instruments and focusing on limited note patterns. He stretches further still on Shedding Skin, which is characterised by a core of live instrumentation; the occasional synth sounds and beat programming acting as a catalyst rather than being the active ingredient. Every track offers something focused and fresh: from the fidgety, additive percussion of ‘Off Peak Dreams’, the threatening, abrupt basslines of ‘Yes, I Helped You Pack’, which contrasts with the rhythmically re-energised ‘Sorry My Love, It’s Not You It’s Me (feat. Lucy Rose)’, to the final angelic grace of ‘Nothing in the Way’. From its ambient, up-tempo highs, to its threatening, abrasive lows, to its reflective and cathartic conclusion, Shedding Skin is a masterpiece.

Denai Moore - Elsewhere, 5003. Denai Moore – Elsewhere
Elsewhere is an intensely personal debut from one of 2015’s most overlooked young voices, Denai Moore. It’s an album that expresses emotion in finely-crafted alcoves of soul, stirring acoustics and subtle synthetics. This 22-year-old Jamaican-Brit projects deep-seated emotion that captures the confusion of moving from one’s teenage years into adulthood with powerful rhythms and succinct lyrical imagery.

The centre of the experience is Moore’s sonorous voice, which is capable of hitting huge, Whitney Houston-esque highs, and her cadence never dips below outstanding on compositions that ask a lot of the singer. Moore conveys the anguish of the family feud (‘I Swore’), the hurt of troubled love (‘Blame’, ‘Feeling’) and the self-discipline one needs to persevere (‘Detonate’, ‘Flaws’) in bold shades. The songs, bathed in melancholy as they are, lie between gentle ballads and crashing baroque numbers. And yet, writing, playing guitar and piano, and providing back vocals herself, coupled with subtly adorned productions – primarily by Rodaidh McDonald, but also Plan B and Kid Harpoon – these songs emote in ways that Adele and Florence Welch do not.

Elsewhere can drift over you like watching a dramatic stage play set to music. But, in the aftermath of a break-up or fallout, or simply a period of personal hardship, its sophisticated emotional mirroring suddenly becomes clear and, thus, its true magnificence. In Moore, you have a musical auteur in the making, who, much like Laura Mvula, is a musician of modest character. Alongside Soak and London Grammar, the soundtrack to the quarter-life-crisis years is growing, and Moore eases the pain with her songs of understanding.

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly, 5002. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
How is Drake’s cooking? Any good, I wonder? How about Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, ASAP Rocky or Tyler, the Creator? Kendrick Lamar told DJ and presenter Mary Anne Hobbs this year that cooking isn’t one of his strong points – a rare look into the mortal, everyday life of an artist who has ascended to god-like status through his unwavering commitment to his music. Kendrick may not be a master chef in the kitchen, but with his latest album, what he has shown us is this: he is a maestro willing to cook up challenging, driven music that, given the state of race relations in the world, is much more nutritious than what the majority of best-selling rappers at his level are serving.

To Pimp a Butterfly is a hip hop album of king-sized proportions. The Compton rapper’s 2012 major label debut, Good Kid, Maad City, was revered almost universally, and it catapulted the dexterous rapper to the status of a near-deity in the eyes of millions. TPAB retains all that was great about Kendrick’s art, clears the slate, and builds up a whole new tale that’s a direct response to the turmoil and racial violence that has gripped North America in the last two years.

There are statements and explicit comments (‘Institutionalized’, ‘I’), touches of abstraction (‘These Walls’), and shots fired back at his doubters, critics and the establishment (‘The Blacker the Berry’). Aiding the direction of the rambunctious funk rhythms that make up much of the music are George Clinton and Thundercat, and the result is fresh tracks that feel almost like a homage to the 90s hip hop of the Pharcyde and others, just as much as the Isley Brothers and Parliament. As a writer and rapper, Kendrick’s talents step up even further on TPAB: his vocals dart between strained personas and a resolute leader, while a passage, that steadily grows longer over the course of the album, serves as the setup for one of the cleverest, most intriguing album closures of 2015. With its combination of fiery rap and banging funk, no record this year will heat your blood like To Pimp a Butterfly.

Andreya Triana - Giants, 5001. Andreya Triana – Giants
This post began with a thought about perseverance. And, personally, the story of perseverance that has touched me the most in music this year is Andreya Triana’s.

Quite simply, Triana’s second album, Giants, is a soul album zhooshed up with pop and alternative tenets – or so a cynic will say. Because not every record needs to be an avant-garde spectacular (a la my 2014 AOTY, St Vincent’s self-titled fourth album). Nor does it have to display cutting-edge technical prowess. What matters most is that the emotion is there and music itself captures precisely the feeling that the artist desires to express.

This is the essence of Giants, an album full of feeling, that would not exist were it not for the perseverance of its creator. Triana’s first album, Lost Where I Belong, had a modest reception (I was fan), but, at least from a communication perspective, it’s been relegate to the status of a demo. Whether Triana feels that or not is irrelevant, because, listening to the songs of Giants, you get the sense that she pushed herself vocally and lyrically further than she has before. And the result is supremely soothing contemporary soul music that lifts Triana closer still to the singers who have inspired her and given her the belief to pursue her dreams.

What’s delightful about Giants is that its songs, collectively a personal reflection of Triana’s life and observations, translate so acutely to change in one’s life – especially for teenagers, and 20- or 30-somethings, who’ve yet to find themselves. Discussions you will hear over and over about the golden years of youth (‘Lullaby’), letting go of physical possessions (‘Clutterbug’), the lack of equality in this life (‘Keep Running’), and being content with what one has (‘Gold’), are integrated in a masterful manner that isn’t preachy, it’s simply therapeutic and encouraging.

Produced by Matt Hales (Lianna La Havas, Paloma Faith), there is plenty of pop sensibility to Giants, too. The blend of acoustic instrumentation and electronic loops is luminous, with bracing rhythms and warm melodies. Though it isn’t a dramatically progressive album in the context of music history, it is nothing if not musically progressive for Triana, as she stretches her vocals amid taut guitar chords, gospel backing and sensitive piano phrases, in styles that vary from pop to classical R&B.

Giants is a story of perseverance, change and growth from a singer who has been participating in all three. Triana makes the mundane fantastic, the tired rejuvenated and the ordinary laudable. The energy of Jazmine Sullivan and Laura Mvula, not to mention her influences, such as Lauryn Hill, comes through boldly in her supple words, while she displays a delicacy that is very much her own. On opening track, ‘Paperwalls’, Triana sings: “When everything’s unknown, [we] can’t help holding onto home / Scared to let it go, but it’s the only way we grow”. We’re all growing, evolving, changing, and Giants is a sublime soundtrack to personal growth, full of contemporary folk tales that will continue to inspire and encourage individuals to persevere for as long as people strive for a new life in times of adversity.

That’s it for another year. Thank you for taking the time to read some, or all, of my thoughts on these albums and the artists behind them.

What have your albums of 2015 been? What did you think of my choices? And what have I missed out that’s an absolute must-hear record?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below or via @dk33per.

See my entire albums of 2015 series.

Images: college (clockwise from top left) Ghostpoet (PIAS/Sonic PR); Andreya Triana (Counter/PR); Little Boots (On Repeat/PR); Blur (Parlophone/PR). Images and photos belong to respective parties