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2015 in review: best albums of the year

December 1, 2015 —

As 2015 draws to a close and album releases slow down, it’s a good time to reflect on the past year’s music and discuss the albums deserving of recognition as the year’s best.

While it’s easy to pick favourites some years, 2015 was packed so full of exceptional releases that choosing a single album is incredibly difficult. Female punk-rock icons Sleater-Kinney reunited for No Cities to Love without missing a step. Local art-rockers Viet Cong put out their excellent but controversial debut LP. And Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly, a jazz-infused hip-hop masterpiece that will dictate the direction of the genre for years to come — and those are just the albums we didn’t choose.

For more coverage of the best music, film and art of 2015, tune into Gauntlet radio on CJSW 90.9 FM Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 11:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m.[hr gap=”10″]

I’ve loved Sufjan Stevens as long as I’ve listened to music. I first heard Illinois in middle school, and his mix of nuanced, orchestral Americana and deeply personal lyricism followed me ever since.

But it wasn’t until this year that Stevens released Carrie & Lowell, his unequivocal masterpiece. The album details Stevens’ relationship with his mother Carrie, who was absent for most of the songwriter’s childhood, and touches on ideas of loss, redemption and hope.

Carrie & Lowell is a marked return to Stevens’ earlier works, which were driven by acoustic guitars and banjos. This shift back to pared-down instrumentation works perfectly with Steven’s vulnerable and personal lyricism, creating an incredibly intimate record.

That’s where the true strength in Carrie & Lowell lies. Stevens wears his heart on his sleeve and even though his experiences and mournings are deeply personal, it’s easy to form your own emotional connections.

The whole album is filled with heart-wrenching moments. Album opener “Death With Dignity” is a plaintive reflection on mortality. “Eugene” taps into the strange mix of nostalgia and dread that accompanies childhood memories, while “The Only Thing” concerns itself with the role religion plays in coping with grief. And “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is an acoustic-guitar masterpiece that rivals works from songwriters like Neil Young and Elliott Smith.

But even though all these songs are heavily concerned with death and regret, Stevens maintains a glimmer of hope throughout. Even in the album’s darkest moments, he finds beauty in nature, companionship and unwavering faith.

The hope Stevens emanates strikes a chord with me, and that’s why Carrie & Lowell is undoubtedly my favourite album of 2015.

Jason Herring

Honourable Mention:
Divers by Joanna Newsom

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“I can just hear them now: how could you let us down,” Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker laments on the closing track to 2015’s Currents. And rightly so — many psych-rock purists were disappointed by the musical sidestep of Parker’s latest album.

Heralded as the sonic successor to Pink Floyd, Tame Impala’s early work triggered a psychedelia revival but ultimately suffered from a lack of emotional maturity. However Parker exhibits a fervent display of thoughtfulness in Currents, my favourite album of 2015.

Parker retreats from his previous tendency to writing personal odes to alienation, choosing instead to showcase a vibrant and intricate expression of self-acceptance and impulsiveness. Sonically, songs like “Cause I’m a Man” and “Yes I’m Changing” are experimental mixes, while the synth-driven explosiveness of “Let it Happen” and “The Moment” draw comparisons to EDM.

Currents is a pop record, but it still makes room for experimentation. The pulsing chillwave interlude “Nangs” is an implicit reference to inhaling nitrous oxide. “Past Life” sees Parker compare a casual run-in with an ex-lover to a distorted dream. The pace grows more frenetic with each passing track. There’s no other band making music quite like Tame Impala. Underneath the shimmering layers and expertly crafted instrumentals, the true centerpiece of Currents is Parker himself.

The album is a rare moment of musical self-actualization where Parker embraces the limelight and accepts himself for all his flaws. It’s a contemporary message wrapped in perfect packaging, and will undoubtedly remain one of the greatest records of a generation.

Jarrett Edmund

Honourable Mention:
Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens

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I’ve had an affinity for Ratatat’s signature sound since I first heard the Brooklyn-based duo impress on classics like “Seventeen Years” and “Wildcat.”

Five years passed between Ratatat’s last album, LP4, and their newest piece, Magnifique. Their 2015 release was not only a triumphant return for Brooklyn’s finest, but a commanding statement on the pair’s growth as electronic pioneers.

While some felt Ratatat’s sound became stagnant on LP4, Magnifique dismisses these issues by blending the duo’s previous electric bite with a newly discovered emotional range.

The new collection still has all the standard conventions of a Ratatat record, but also features laid-back meanderings that would’ve seemed out of place on previous albums.

It’s more mellow and sullen, but still ramps up into poignant moments of energetic electronic chaos when it needs to. “Cream on Chrome” is the album’s greatest success, opening with a low-key rhythmic groove before evolving into a gritty, distorted masterpiece.

But we see Ratatat’s new approach  best on the album’s title track. “Magnifique” is a far cry from the duo’s previous club bangers, a soothing departure that sees them trade harsh guitar leads for swelling strings.

Some may find Magnifique barren at times, lacking Ratatat’s signature energy and aggression, but it shouldn’t be compared so linearly with the duo’s previous records.

Magnifique has different goals. It represents a different set of emotions and does so with a new set of tools. The album exists more as an alternate storyline than a pure sequel, and on that front it stands as an undeniable success. Magnifique reigns as this year’s best electronic record, and my top choice of 2015.

Sonny Sachdeva

Honourable Mention:
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful by Florence + the Machine

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