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The 10 best albums of 2015

December 17, 2015

Sneaky hip-hop triumphs, feminist ferocity, and electronics in the age of anxiety.

For this year’s list of the best albums 2015 had to offer, we reached out to 10 writers to submit their top picks. As with any collection of critics or obsessive music fans, the results are wide-ranging, drawing in everything from pop superstars to underground icons, hip-hop heroes to electronic tricksters, and one album that hasn’t even been released yet (see if you can guess!).

Click through our gallery above to reveal the top 10 and then read on below for the full reviews (organized alphabetically) from our panel of trusty contributors.

Chvrches – Every Open Eye (Glassnote / Virgin EMI)

The sophomore record has tripped up many aspiring music superstars. Sticking too close to the formula that led to the first album being a success can lead to accusations of not being innovative enough, while attempting to bring in new, more disparate influences or evolve in challenging new directions can cause resentment from a fanbase who were expecting more of the same.

With Every Open Eye, Glaswegian synth-pop outfit Chvrches managed to toe that fine line expertly, doubling down on the sound that made their debut LP resonate with so many, while sonically expanding just enough to keep things interesting. Darker, more introspective tracks like “Keep You On My Side” or “High Enough to Carry You Over” provide a perfect emotional balance to pop gems like “Make Them Gold” or “Empty Threat.” Overall, Every Open Eye sails Chvrches past the sophomore slump on the road to pop superstardom.

– Rob Rousseau

Cindy Lee – Act of Tenderness (CCQSK)

The sparse but incredibly influential output of Calgary’s Women was enough to create a cult-like devotion. While two members split off to form the rightly criticized Viet Cong, singer-guitarist Pat Flegel has continued to crank away under the radar with a series of guises and short-lived side-projects, all of which showed off his heartrending songwriting skills obfuscated under layers of abstraction and abrasion. Cindy Lee’s Act of Tenderness wipes away much of the mystery to reveal the quivering beauty that was there all along.

This album self-released through Flegel’s own label CCQSK (a nonsensical name he says came to him in a dream) brings his gender-bending Cindy Lee persona to the peak of its powers. The name of the project itself may be a sly reference to 1960s country singer Brenda Lee, with her sound of haunted heartbreak channeled on songs like “Power and Possession”, “Wandering and Solitude”, and the devastating standout “Last Train’s Come and Gone.” He adds sly shifts to the formula with the regal funeral march of “Fallen Angel” and minimal synth-pop of “Operation”, while “A New Love is Believing” ends the song cycle on a cold water splash of hope.

– Jesse Locke

Drake – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (OVO Sound/YMCMB)

Drake’s fourth commercial release is significant for a few reasons. The least of these is the patient, drawn-out beat and lyrics of “Know Yourself,” the song that both finally established Toronto as “the Six” and added “woes” to this year’s cultural lexicon, foreshadowed in concept by Drake’s 15-minute pre-release short film, Jungle. Above all else, If You’re Reading This situated OVO Sound as Canada’s most important hip-hop brand-house.

With production from Boi-1da, WondaGurl, Noah “40” Shebib, and PartyNextDoor among others, features by Lil Wayne on “Used To” and Travi$ $cott on “Company” and the bodying “Energy” with samples from Eazy-E and Three 6 Mafia, it’s the refinement of Drake’s flow (cf. “Worst Behaviour”), with the force of his braggadocio backed up by his monumental, unprecedented popularity. The video for “Energy,” by French animators Fleur & Manu, was referential, creative, weird, and symbolically positioned Drake at the top of the game.

More than that, the release was the first of his Apple deals and the conflation of ‘mixtape’ and ‘album’ all wrapped up in controversies about Cash Money Records and the prayer-hands emoji. In 2015, no release from Drake or any other rapper shined as brightly in thoughtfulness, cultural impact and iconography.

– Adria Young

Jam City – Dream A Garden (Night Slugs)

With his 2012 album Classical Curves, UK electronic producer Jam City (a.k.a. Jack Latham) already proved himself a master of the then pre-vogue art of impossibly perfect high-gloss, inhuman [de]constructions currently practiced by the PC Music crew. This year’s follow-up Dream A Garden strives for the exact opposite.

Tempering their industrial percussive clatter with washed-out vocals and dreamy guitar treatments, Dream A Garden’s nine tracks, strike that, songs, go beyond other experimental post-dubstep explorations like Mount Kimbie, Darkstar, et. al, and manage to enter emotional and lyrical territory nominally reserved for say, a hardcore band.

Latham knows what he wants to say – albeit through a haze of delay and chorus effects – about issues like the triumph of consumerism, the social disconnection inherent to technology, and a destabilized perception of reality. He rightly thought that the pursuit of actual songcraft was the way to say them.

– Jeremy Mersereau

Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon (Interscope)

Lana Del Rey is making albums. The rock obsessed sad girl priestess has studied the records that drove her this far, and at the wheel she channels her influences in the creation of albums with breathing, lasting individual personalities.

Continuing the west coast obsession of 2014’s Ultraviolence, on Honeymoon Del Rey seems to have forgotten Brooklyn altogether, in favour of sun bleached beaches and warm ocean water (possibly, from the sounds of it, laced with ketamine). “Come to California,” Del Rey invites us, “be a freak like me.” Del Rey’s slipped into some kind of noir time-chasm, where the 1960s are endless, and no one on the poolside knows or cares where the water is imported from.

Sulking ever deeper into the dark paradises on the other side of success’s rainbow, Del Rey’s gaze continues to burn the very men she allows to ruin her, from “High By the Beach’’s scornful, only half-believable confessions to “Music To Watch Boys To”’s teasing refrains. The album closes with a cover of Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” performed with just the rest amount of studied ennui to alienate dinosaur collector purists everywhere whom, I hope, never find out the album’s listening parties were at select Urban Outfitters locations. Scratch that, I hope they do.

Shout out to every 15-year-old girl starting their record collection, because that honeymoon is never over.

– Kristel Jax

Lupe Fiasco – Tetsuo & Youth (Atlantic)

If not for online vigilantes Anonymous threatening Lupe Fiasco’s label to set a release date for Tetsuo & Youth, the album might still be in limbo after being shelved for more than a year. This exemplified the nightmare relationship Lupe had with Atlantic Records. As he tells it, he couldn’t make the album he wanted to make and while his first two didn’t seem to suffer from their overbearing requirements, they also didn’t come close to representing the work of a brilliantly creative talent like Lupe.

Tetsuo & Youth ended up being a liberator in more ways than one; it got him out of his contract and, maybe more importantly for his career, it, at last, realized the potential of an artist of Lupe Fiasco’s caliber, when left to his own devices. Sure, eight-minute chorusless tracks and nine-minute posse cuts might be tough to market but those willing to dissect this project would find themselves rewarded with every listen.

In a year that featured a steady stream of significant rap releases, it’s important to acknowledge the role Lupe played in developing the idea of the rap auteur. This sneaky triumph celebrates everything the revitalized genre has to offer.

– Chayne Japal

New Chance – Ear Rationelle (Healing Power Records)

We know art as a means to express human emotion and experience, and usually with music it is articulations of existential angst and turmoil. What then is the sound of the beginning of the end of pain?

From the quiet breakthrough of Victoria Cheong’s vocal loops on Ear Rationelle‘s opening track “Clearing Coming”, a light beam breaks through to us from the inky abyss. Your heart rate slows, coaxing an awareness and inner calm; it is the daylight breaking through in your own consciousness.

This collection of electronic tracks from Toronto’s New Chance is an allegory for transition, about becoming something new, the beginning of a journey, and reflections of selfhood in nature. You are a satellite floating through an infinite cosmos. Each track carries a distinct feeling of openness in space, nonexistent walls, and limitless movement. Echoing back from pure light into nothingness, each beat and pulsating electronic blip seems to swell and dissolve in equal parts. Emerging from the shadows, Cheong softly reveals her impressions of an interconnected universe, where your liquid consciousness is free to float, seeing its own inner neon fluorescent light reflected back.

It is a circle. All reality is a mirror that reflects on itself. A leaf is a body too. I see a clear sky.

– Julia Dickens

Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete (Warp)

The music of Daniel Lopatin (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never) has always struck me as overwhelmingly intelligent and Garden of Delete is surely no exception. Melodies punctuated with glitches; simulated instruments and distorted voices; G.o.D is best described as an inundation.

At times simply horrifying and at times encroaching on the brink of hilarity, Lopatin lets us know that we are in an age of anxiety. But even at its harshest, most sundered moments, the fragments that make up its narrative are sutured with dexterity. 0PN is asking how we situate ourselves in this hyperreality and Garden of Delete feels simultaneous in that its alienation is a wholly consuming one.

– Nivedita Iyer

Rihanna – ANTI (Roc Nation/Westbury Road)

There was no album more beautiful, more pure and more amazing than the new one Rihanna didn’t release. I haven’t heard it yet (COULD BE SHIT), but what 2015 offering could top the prospect of a magic full-length bursting with super singles? Released LPs can be stuffed with things like filler and experimental (read: bad) tunes and no one needs that. REMINDER: “Bitch Better Have My Money” was very good.

I like to imagine ANTI sounds largely like that and comes with a voucher for free candy plus the power to take back the time I called the teacher “mom” in Kindergarten. The worst thing about this album is the possibility that Rihanna releases it before this blurb gets published and I’ll have to give up the fantasy one I’ve crafted in my head.

– Dan MacRae

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love (Sub Pop)

In the near decade since Sleater-Kinney announced their hiatus, fans, feminists, and even the band themselves waited for new blood to take up the mantle. We all hoped someone would continue their legacy of rock ferocity and unapologetic politics, break more boundaries and demolish more dumb “women in music” tropes. As they’ve noted in several interviews, that never really happened, so they came back to do it themselves.

No Cities to Love is the logical, older-sister succession to 2006’s The Woods, funnelling all that album’s vitriol and anthemics through 10 years of rumination to form taut, sharply-honed songs that waste no time and take no prisoners. The band’s matured, but is no less energized; there’s still all the pointed social observations (“Price Tag”), dizzying guitar interplay (“A New Wave”), cathartic primal wails (“Gimme Love”) and other S-K hallmarks to make hearts race and hairs stand on end.

What makes it even better this time is that, finally, it’s not just the indie underground that’s privy to Sleater-Kinney’s latest accomplishment – it’s everyone.

– Shazia Khan

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