Top 10 Albums of The Year 2015
So, it’s that time of year already. Top 10 Albums Lists have hit the web, and we aren’t going to let equally important publications like the New York Times or Rolling Stone get all the glory, join LA Deli as we count down the finest records of the year as well as call out our biggest letdown.
So find out who’s first on the list by Clicking Here.
[nextpage title=”10. Kacey Musgraves”]
10. Pageant Material, Kacey Musgraves
Kacey Musgraves has been busy this year; aside from carving out a full-time job as someone literally named as Barbies country cousin, she’s been carving a reputation for herself outside of the Nashville scene as an accidental crossover artist. Yet unlike Taylor Swift before her, Musgraves’ records to date have been pure country through-and-through. Has there ever been a song written more country than “Are You Sure”, her collaboration with Willy Nelson?
With Carrie Underwood’s latest collections sounding increasingly samey and overwrought – the twee and laid back Pageant Material is a welcome throwback to a friendlier, more upbeat time out in the country (more on that later) and sparkles with the pageant era quality which the artwork evokes.
How country is this? Well, the album features a track called Biscuits and another called Cup O Tea – so pretty fuckin country sums it up. Biscuits in particular shines as one of the highlights of the album – a beautifully produced feel good track about, essentially, minding your own fucking business.
Sounding like an up-and-coming Miranda Lambert, this should be considered hot favourite for the Grammy for Country record, Musgraves is pretty much set for a stellar upward trajectory from here on out.[nextpage title=”9. Tina Arena”]
9. Eleven (Deluxe Edition), Tina Arena
Tina Arena is, at this stage, a living legend that half the world forgets about. She’s effectively one of the best vocalists of her generation, one vastly consistent in her quality. After a comeback album which surpassed expectations, Eleven represents a joyous “Fuck it, I’m going to make an album of shit-hot, soaring ballads” which it turns out is something no one asked for but everyone needed.
The problem with the ballad is that they are usually (9 times out of 10) pretty shit. With the exception of Adele and maybe Celine, not many pop singers touch ballads with a bargepole – especially with the rise of EDM.
Eleven goes in the opposite direction – and fills an entire record with wall-to-wall potential ballad smashes. Admittedly some of these would probably only appeal to the gays and aunties amongst us, but to dismiss Arena to that arena of fandom would be unfair to her talents as both a vocalist and a songwriter. This is a farm of Tedder-esque superhits Kelly Clarkson would’ve ripped an arm off to release.
The album is filled with tender moments, soaring peaks and crashing sonic troughs delivered with goosebump-raising soul and accuracy by Arena who’s voice remains an accomplishment in it’s own right. Songs like “When You’re Ready to Leave” are affirming Des’ree style incantations about how you are pretty fucking awesome and manage to do so without sounding naff or dated.
Worth noting is that the best songs on the album – Heaven and the emotionally charged Walk With You (as good a pop song as there ever was) only appear on the Deluxe version.[nextpage title=”8. Janet Jackson”]
8. Unbreakable, Janet Jackson
She’s back! Looking like a gay lion from Oz, nonetheless, but she’s back!
Janet Jackson finalllllyyyyyy returned to the music scene this year in typical Janet style (quietly, like a sexy whisper) and she wasn’t here for any “here to snatch weaves” nonsense. With Unbreakable, Janet continues to transcend her genre; something made a little easier when you basically invented said genre. At it’s best Unbreakable feels like a throwback to peak Janet, and at it’s worst Unbreakable is pretty good date night music to get down to.
Slow burn R&B is something that few have dared to keep alive in the absence of Janet. Rihanna keeps hinting that she’s up for it, then shies away, whilst the under-rated Ciara can’t catch a commercial break with her take on it. But no-one does it better than Janet.[nextpage title=”7. Hilary Duff”]
7. Breathe In Breathe Out, Hilary Duff
Hilary Duff isn’t exactly a name you’d associate with cutting edge pop, and nor will it likely ever be. However her comeback record “Breathe In, Breathe Out” is not only one of the best pure pop releases of the year, but it’s a startling and unexpected lurch forward for Hilary Duff as a musical artist.
Duff’s once painfully thin vocals seem armed with new confidence to deliver surprisingly compelling lyrics like “Oh so you’ve burned me again, I don’t wanna know where you’ve been. I was your new best friend, do you know I’ll treat you like them” and seem like she actually means them.
No, she isn’t suddenly going to win vocalist of the year, but her sweet and often vulnerable voice seems to work surprisingly well with heartache-fueled breakup pop; a thematic shift which makes Breathe In... her best written, best produced, and most compelling collection to date (and subsequently served as a soundtrack for my own messy breakup, something I never expected a Hilary Duff record would).
How the soaring dancehall jam My Kind wasn’t the blockbuster smash hit of the summer is a testament to the complete lack of marketing that backed up this album, or indeed the failure of label strategy in it’s launch. The accompanying video is a goddamn mess and it still annoys me.
If you’d like to see what “progression” sounds like, compare the above to the astonishingly bad “Beat of My Heart“ back from the days when Hilary Duff could sell a bottled fart. I mean i can’t tell you enough how rubbish I thought Hilary Duff was for so many years, so liking this album was as big as a surprise to me as it is to be writing an article naming it one of my favourites of the year.
As those cut from the mould she helped create get their kit off , act wild or exploit high-profile relationships to sell their wares; Duff refuses to fall into any of the expected pop tropes and instead serves up an album of really catchy, really nicely put together pop songs in earnest whilst remaining true to her values, which in itself is no easy task for someone fighting for her comeback.
Detractors thought Breathe In… was a sure-fire flop after the lead single, catchy Sparks, failed to set the charts alight, but it managed to prove that Duff still has a strong following, debuting top 5 in the Billboard 200.
It’s hard to feel like her label really believed in what Duff is trying to do here, and so it all feels a bit like a missed opportunity on that front given the quality of the record. But as this list shows, commercial underperformers are often critically affirming affairs for artists when they need it most; and[nextpage title=”6. Susanne Sundfør”]
6. Ten Love Songs, Susanne Sundfør
Susanne Sundfør is huge in Norway. They can’t get enough of her brand of brooding, swirling synthpop; and with her sixth studio album there should be no further questions as to why that might be.
The record has an identity crisis in the best possible respect. One moment it’s a heartaching-upbeat dance record evoking Scandipop records of the ABBA variety and the next it’s an orchestral interlude which feels like it’d be at home on a Philip Glass score. Lead single “Fade Away” hints at the deeper package you get on Ten – that is to say smart and watertight. Whilst “Delirious” could be one of the (creepiest) top songs of the decade, never mind the year.
One thing that is completely consistent is the quality of the vocals, the melodies and the razor sharp production. Ten is a record you stumble upon per recommendation and are super glad that you did. It’ll please the hipsters, the popsters and the classicists too thanks to it’s stubborn defiance in conforming to a genre and ultimate strength as a result.
This album is scary good and you need to give it a whirl if you haven’t already.[nextpage title=”5. Enya”]
5. Dark Sky Island, Enya
Let’s just get one thing clear; Dark Sky Island sounds pretty much like every Enya album since Watermark. That is to say that musical progression and diversity are not something anyone at team Enya seem particularly concerned about.
Sure, there are minor thematic differences in the marketing and projection of the records, but essentially you know what you are getting, and it’s not exactly an Armand van Helden dance remix, or that weird time Celine decided to drag it up as a dancefloor lesbian.
With Dark Sky Island, Enya brings her milkshake of multi-layered humming and oohing and ahhing to the yard atop an incredibly outdated synth machine and the idea that somehow her lyrics serve as anything more than just padding for the sonicscape. But throwback synth is so NOW, and Dark Sky Island totally works if you are willing to stop pretending you are too cool for this.
Songs like The Loxian Gate make you feel like you’re in Game of Thrones (And did you know Enya lives in an actual fucking castle in Ireland? No shit.) and Echoes in the Rain is pure, classic Enya as well as basically the defacto Mum-jam of the year. It’s also the song you’ll subsequently criticise as being naff as hell, only to play the living shit out of on Spotify all through Christmas. Such is the mystical and timeless power of Enya.
I have visions of what an Enya tour might look like. Leagues of hippy-dippy Aunties screaming “YASSSS ENYA MY QWEEEEN” as they show up dressed like Lord of the Rings characters. Ridiculously high scale production values with full orchestra backing and weird projection mapping like you wouldn’t believe. An Enya tour is the holy grail of the music industry given that everything she releases effectively sells relentlessly for years, and with Dark Sky Island that is certainly not about to change. Well played Enya you weird, awesome alien.[nextpage title=”4. Carly Rae Jepsen”]
4. EMOTION, Carly Rae Jepsen
If we’re looking at this from pure-pop terms, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion is the best album of the year, bar none. It’s almost pop perfection in its blend of throwback synth-driven 80s sounds that not only challenged Taylor Swift’s excellent 1989 in it’s field, but ended up being an all round better record.
What 1989 has over Emotion is a singer who is infinitely more accessible, thereby giving a greater sense of personality to the music. This is something Jepsen is going to struggle with going forward given it was a widespread criticism (one of the very few, this album is sitting on most year-end lists) upon release. If we know nothing about her, how can we relate to her life or struggles? Being a musician is different from being an actor in that the music is a creative outlet that is a reflection of culminated life experiences. Right now the only life experience i know Carly Rae Jepsen has had is a monster-hit a few years ago.
Still, the songs on Emotion are almost all growers in the most serious terms. The light frothy pop initially might sound like nothing new, but once you revisit the songs they begin to burrow into your brain and it strikes that this is actually an incredibly intelligent piece of pop production and songwriting, which it bloody should be given that Jepsen basically employed a farm of talent to make this record perfect.
Tracks like “I Really Like You“, “Run Away with Me” and “LA Hallucinations” are absolute belters, and the rest of the record is fleshed out with sleekly tuned uber pop. In fact, I’d go as far as saying Run Away With Me is one of this era’s finest songs across the board. Jepsen has been kind to her producers with this one, and it’s clear that she has the vocal chops to tussle with the titans. So it remains a mystery why this album and it’s excellent songs flopped commercially.
Still, Jepsen can walk away from Emotion knowing that she’s broken away from the perception that she’s simply a one-hit wonder, armed with widespread acclaim and respect for putting out an album which as cohesive as it is memorable.[nextpage title=”3. Cam”]
3. Untamed, Cam
Poor Cam. Despite the fact that her label is obviously aware that the huge critical and commercial buzz around her Grammy-nominated single “Burning House” is sort of fundamental to her success, they’ve shafted her with a December release date which will see her lost in the shuffle of Christmas records and ensure she misses almost every Year End list. Well, not this one!
Untamed is, quite simply, the most exciting country-pop debut record since Taylor Swift. It nails the careful juggling act of the two genres and does so with deeply memorable hooks and songwriting.
Cam herself is a refreshing personality, she’s bright, super happy and wears yellow because “it’s like bringing the sunshine with me” which would be gross if she wasn’t so lovely and down to earth. That ray of sunshine is what country music needs a little more of. It’s a genre which often takes itself too seriously, ironic given the cartoonishness of many of the artists which call it hom
Untamed is at it’s best when it’s marrying biting, heartbroken lyrics with uptempo pop-leaning production. Mayday could be my favourite song of the year, and Hungover on Heartache is nothing short of songwriting genius. The one misfire is “Country Aint Never Been Pretty” which would work if Cam wasn’t a well-manicured beauty in her own right. This idea that all of the women in country music are all dangling their boot-clad legs off the back of a Ford pickup truck drinking moonshine with the boys by the lake every Friday night needs to be put to bed, as no-one’s buying it.
Surely some in the country music community resent Cam’s seemingly out-of-nowhere success, especially since Untamed isn’t strictly a country record, but the record has been five-years in the making and absolutely shows the fruits of a long labour. Flawless and impressively soulful vocals tinker across the most solid production of the year from any genre and the record also pulls off the impossible feat of a flawless debut. With Untamed, hear who Cam is, we hear who Cam could become and then we leave with a feeling that Cam’s got even more to offer down the line.
With Untamed, hear who Cam is, we hear who Cam could become and then we leave with a feeling that Cam’s got even more to offer down the line.[nextpage title=”2. Ludovico Einaudi”]
2. Elements, Ludovico Einaudi
Ludovico Einaudi is a rare beast. He has never released a bad record. The ethos for him is “Go transcendent or go home.”Approaching his music without recognising that he is, in fact, a musical genius would be wrong. Single-handedly, Einaudi has built a bridge for classical music into the modern-era and popularised it for a generation. His pieces are exquisitely crafted, gorgeously twisty affairs which toy with the balance between repetition & crescendos to take you on a journey, tell a story, and engage you on a core level.
Elements is another stunning achievement from this musical visionary. Pieces such as Night and Petricor stand out, and Mountain sums up the album nicely – a haunting walk through an endless winterscape. For me, this represents his best record since Divenire.
Einaudi’s at his best when he’s punctuating piano with a wistful cello, and nothing here feels totally unfamiliar if you’re already a fan, but what is exciting is that he approaches each record with different inspirations and strives to make sure the music is faithful to that. It’s not a marketing tactic, and his music is evolving. The strong thematics of each record are audible and Elements is a deeply calming, gorgeously restrained and sweeping must-have, another sparkling gem in Einaudi’s untarnished and unchallenged crown as the King of Modern Classical.
[nextpage title=”1. Vanessa Carlton”]
1. Liberman, Vanessa Carlton
Let’s get this out of the way with first; I’m a huge Vanessa Carlton fan. It’s not a huge shocker that Liberman sits as my pick of the best record of the year. Im biased. I like her . I really, really like her.
So now, let’s talk about why. It’s nothing to do with her decent but unspectacular debut record Be Not Nobody, which set the charts alight in a way nothing she’s produced since could. It’s about what she did after all that.
Vanessa Carlton, for me, has always served up a bit of a soundtrack for my life. She’s of a similar age, so the things she sings about have always felt relatable and real. She understands love, heartache, and how to put that into lyrical form. She nails the line between earnest and abstract and her melodies as a pop songwriter are unrivalled. She is without a doubt the most underrated musician in modern pop, and it must be frustrating for her that it takes reviews from hipster journals like Pitchfork to make anyone pay attention.
From her second album, the pop-perfect Harmonium, evolution was afoot. Her third effort – Heroes and Thieves – showed strong growth for Carlton as a songwriter – someone moving towards a vision and developing an understanding that truly great records deserve narratives. Rabbits on the Run further honed her abilities with a violent shakeup in her sound and artistic direction for the better – a rebirth into a softer, more ethereal musical force no doubt inspired by her musical benefactors (Stevie Nicks, Steve Osborne). Which brings us to Liberman, the deal-sealer in the transition for Vanessa Carlton from one-hit-wonder to respected musician.
Liberman is staggeringly beautiful, wonderfully crafted, carefully written and is a triumph in the art of restraint. It’s imperfect, it’s honest, it’s creative, and it’s the sound of a woman absolutely where she wants to be sonically – perhaps for the first time in her career.
Vanessa’s voice is in rare form here, tinkling across the flawless melodies like a gentle whisper. Liberman feels ethereal and grows on you with each listen as new flickers in the stripped back production work their way to centre stage. This is a record where Carlton has been free to do what she wants, and various extended outros and short atmospheric pieces like Ascension are testaments to the power of letting artists do what they want.
Nothing Where Something Used to Be is the best pop song Vanessa Carlton has even written, and on the Deluxe version her live rendition rivals or surpasses the studio version. It is a song which surmises Vanessa Carlton quite nicely – a woman who understands broken hearts, melodies and how to pull at the heart strings with a simple key change or a skip in a beat.
Whilst she veers a little close to being the audible equivalent of a dreamcatcher on a few occasions (She really likes singing about Shamans) with songs like House of Seven Swords, others like the awesome Operator infuse the record with a bit of va-va-voom, and Take it Easy is, ironically, bloody exciting to listen to.
One thing Liberman makes no uncertainty about is that Steve Osborne and Vanessa Carlton were destined to work together. His dreamy productions are the perfect partner to her soothing, growing vocals and his presence is almost as prominent as hers on the record. She’s in good company.
My only criticism is that the record is too short, and that’s probably the best criticism an artist can get. If you haven’t bought Liberman (and not many people have sadly) then BLOODY BUY IT YOU FOOL! It’s worth every dollar.
[nextpage title=”Most Disappointing”]
Most Disappointing Record: Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz
Oh Miley. Sometimes a quest to shock and provoke can be transformative for a career, as with the mediocre Bangerz. But Dead Petz is the surprise album no-one wanted. Perhaps the lack of quality control is why Miley released this one for free, as it could well be a series of offcuts from Bangerz. Creatively confused, Dead Petz is a case of try-hardery that just doesn’t gel. Who knows what sound Cyrus is going for, it’s bloody mad, but it’s a vanity project through and through, and there has to be some point where an artist considers their audience, rather than their projection.
Perhaps this is part of Miley’s masterplan to differentiate herself from the slightly dull stable of post-Disney stars – but Miley, you can always do a punk album instead love.
To be honest, Miley lost us when she said she no longer acknowledges See You Again, which remains her flaw free iconic crowning glory for the lyric “My best friend Leslie say’s Oh she’s just bein Miley!”. Classic songwriting, right there.