Every December the staff of Here Today meet to decide our favourite albums of the year. It’s an ugly brawl, with scars lasting well into the next Spring. This year, to save ourselves a bit of dignity, we thought we’d ask our readers to pick the best of our 20 candidates for best album. The voting will end at midnight on the 20th of December, but we will be arguing the case for each album until the final day.
Majical Cloudz – Are You Alone?
When relationships end, it can get ugly fast. Some people lash out, and some turn it inwards. The source of heartbreak on Majical Cloudz’s Are You Alone matter far less than the overarching contemplation of what it means to be in love or alone. The down tempo album of pianos, synths, and solo vocals on this particularly lovelorn album makes it your best friend and companion for rainy days or just days when you can’t bear to face the world. And it’s still got more dignity to it than a Netflix marathon.
Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect
Protomartyr had all the makings of the next garage rock band of the minute, but there are already enough swampy vocals out there. What there isn’t enough of is the deadpan delivery that makes this band instantly recognizable. It’s as if that voice has given them license to go ever so slightly off the rails; with atypical narratives and atypical song structures, The Agent Intellect wraps its frayed ends around you and grips tightly. All the proof you need is in the second movement of “Why Does It Shake?” If that doesn’t make it a contender for song of the year, there’s no hope for any of us.
Jamie xx – In Colour
It seems ridiculous that In Colour is actually Jamie xx’s debut album as a solo artist. After two LPs with the xx, producing Gil Scott Heron’s I’m New Here, and countless remixes, finally we have a full-length album with Jamie’s name on the cover. Not that he is alone: xx bandmates Romy Croft and Oliver Sim make an appearance, as well as Young Thug and Popcaan. The result is a bright collection of down-tempo dance tunes with a nostalgic bent.
Viet Cong – Viet Cong
The Canadian quartet’s self-titled album is a soundtrack through a dystopian fairyland (and with song titles like “Pointless Experience,” “Bunker Buster,” and “Death,” that’s not really projecting). Pulled between ambient synths and math rock guitars, pulsed by deceptively understated drums,Viet Cong falls into loops that you could easily roll through for hours at a time without wanting to break out of the cycle. You’ll snap out of it, though, when the faux nice-guy vocals kick in and remind you that these guys have a fatalist streak in them. It’s definitely one of the most exciting debut albums of the year.
Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss
It’s been exciting to watch Chelsea Wolfe develop as an artist, and even more still to see how she’s harnessed the competing elements of her music in new ways. Abyss is her most balanced record yet, allowing her voice to float through quieter arrangements instead of always serving as a contrast to the intensity and harshness of the noise she works with. Songs liked “Grey Matter” hit that sweet spot of letting her voice shine over the aggression instead of in spite of it, but never let us worry for a second. Wolfe can make even the ugliest noises sound beautiful.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Where other albums this year have distinguished themselves in their inventive production, Sufjan Steven’s seventh studio album takes the opposite approach: the instrumentation is limited, often nothing more than a finger-picked guitar, and effects are kept to a minimum. What we are left with is the deep melancholy of Stevens’ soft vocals, and his lyrics of loss. As a counterpoint to this close focus on the singer-songwriter’s emotional state, there is a limpid precision to his playing that cuts through the whole record, elevating it from naked confession to finely-wrought statement.
Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper
Noah Lennox, co-founder of Animal Collective, returned with an album that showcases his signature blend of electronic pop and off-kilter psychedelia. It’s all there: the weird tropicana, angelic Brian Wilson voice, the bouncy synths. Noise and melody intertwine until they are indistinguishable from each other, lyrics melt into chorus-laden chants. Some critics have complained that none of this is particularly new with Panda Bear, but when the results are this good, it seems like a rather minor complaint.
Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasa
From Kinshasa to the Moon: this is the trajectory declared by the Congolese 7-piece at the beginning of their debut album. The record label may have neglected to append the destination to the album title, but the rest of the world hasn’t. It’s an often-bewildering journey, full of unfamiliar pulsating rhythms and dark bass lines, that don’t conform to what we would comfortably like to call ‘afro-beat’. Acoustic elements clash with lo-fi synths, the synchopated drums countered by the regularity of the electronic beats. It’s the sound of a big, busy, alien city moving into the future: crowded, idiosyncratic, chaotic and heady.
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
Some of us refused to believe that a member of Fleet Floxes could have a sense of humour. But say what you like about I Love You, Honeybear, it is not an album that takes itself very seriously. Josh Tillman has produced an album of nostalgic bar-ballads and folk love-hate songs suffused with bright colour and a sly wit. Perhaps what has captured the imagination of so many listeners is this odd juxtaposition between, on the one hand, Tillman’s emotional delivery and sentimental arrangements, and on the other, his withering treatment of millennial culture. It might be ridiculously mean-spirited, but if Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” is anything to go by, most people are down with you insulting your former girlfriends as long as you do so in such an obvious way that it ends up biting your own ass.
Tobias Jesso Jr – Goon
Father John Misty was not the only one this year to make waves with some retro singer-songwriter nostalgia. But Tobias Jess Jr is less barroom depressive, more of a grand piano melancholic. Double-tracked vocals, minimal instrumentation, and heartfelt lyrics: it’s probably not a stretch to guess that plenty of weddings in 2016 are going to feature “Without You” on their playlist.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
West-coast rap’s rising star exploded this year with To Pimp A Butterfly. Grandiose yet subtle, rooted yet avant-garde, the album is the perfect distillation of the best of both the old guard (Dre, Snoop, George Clinton, Ronald Isley) and the new (Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Rapsody). Full of the smoothest grooves and catchiest beats, the real strength of the album is how even the smallest details contribute to creating a vibrant, exciting whole. There is a moment at the end of “Wesley’s Theory”—when what sounds like a phone vibrating turns out to be the saxophone intro to the wild jazz of “For Free”— that perfectly sums up the level of creativity, humour and dedication that has had critics call this the definitive rap album of the decade.
Joanna Newsom – Divers
A new record from Joanna Newsom should always be considered a notable event. But if Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly can be considered a defining part of 2015, to say the same of Divers would feel faintly ridiculous. Divers is as much part of 1715 and 2215 as it is of this year. And that is what makes Newsom such a unique, fearless voice, one that can dedicate itself to the research of how humans work through and against time without even a hint of pretension. And an album whose first single opens with these lines is worthy of every accolade: “The cause is Ozymandian / the map of Sapokanikan / is sanded and bevelled / the land lone and levelled / by some unrecorded and powerful hand.”
Dick Diver – Melbourne, Florida
Sometimes what makes an album stand out is the reception it gets when you play it to other people. This year Dick Diver’s Melbourne, Florida stood out for this very reason. The sound is instantly familiar, songs distantly remembered from a past life, worming themselves back into your working memory. Those more familiar with the Aussie quartet will point out that the band have already made a name for themselves with their first three albums, but I can personally testify that everyone I’ve introduced to “Waste the Alphabet” and “Tearing the Posters Down” already has these engraved in their minds alongside the best that 80s and 90s indie pop ever produced. And don’t be fooled into taking this as twee: with song titles like “Beat Me Up (Talk To a Counsellor)”, there is a dark, caustic wit to Dick Diver that makes them worth anyone’s time.
Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness
After dazzling us with the dark, swirling chaos of Loud City Song in 2013, Julia Holter’s follow up, Have You In My Wilderness, presents itself as something of a return to the light. Gone are the dark horns and paranoid bass, replaced by harpsichord and dreamy strings. But don’t be fooled, there is still plenty of dark weirdness in Holter’s lyrics and vocal delivery. It’s just that they have been transferred into the bright, white room shown in the cover art. Opening with “Feel You” the closest thing to a pop-song Holter has ever produced, Have You In My Wilderness demonstrates a new, luxuriant side to an artist that will always be a part of Here Today’s personal pantheon.
Holly Herndon – Platform
If there’s an album that would be ridiculous to listen to in any analogue format, it’s Holly Herndon’s Platform. This collection of glitchy digital compositions captures the often-overlooked joys and perils of living through computers. Herndon has taken the Knife’s school of heavily-effected vocals to new extremes, sounding more like a computer that is trying to reconstruct music from a broken hard-drive. If that sounds a little off-putting, one can only respond that this is the whole point, but that is not to say that songs like “Chorus” and “Morning Sun” aren’t almost danceable. It’s just that they re-create what it’s like to listen to dance music on headphones, whilst browsing the internet: fractured, distracted, introverted. And it’s about time that we focused on the way that most of us listen to music day to day.
Blur – The Magic Whip
Since their reunion in 2009, Blur have peeked their heads around the corner every so often with a tour and a new single to make their existence more than a nostalgia trip. The Magic Whip, however, is the first real evidence that there is intention left in them. They’re a band whose members have gone in different directions in the last 10 years and brought those experiences back with them, but remember what it is everyone loves about them. Crunchy, abstract guitar solos? Check. Moody broody ballads? Check. Big, joyful singalong choruses? Check. Any memory of Britpop? Successfully traded for the here and now. Rather than argue that this is the best album of their career, it’s more apt to appreciate that this is exactly the record you would hope they would make now.
Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, Girl
It’s taken five albums, but with Apocalypse, Girl Jenny Hval has finally found a way to skip down the weird/accessible line with just the right balance. The Norwegian singer (who is one fourth Danish) got us all grooving to references to breast cancer and soft dicks, sneaking in feminist and anti-capitalist declarations with admirable wit. Her avant garde pop is a patchwork of electronic music, chilled beats, spoken word and gentle vocals. And yeah, you do feel a little dirty singing along to some of it (most of it?), but a huge part of Hval’s appeal is that she never forgets that the most effectively subversive music is, at its heart, fun.
Various Artists – Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton
Karen Dalton was a literally unsung hero of the New York folk scene in the 60s. She released a couple of albums of covers, but was too affected by anxiety to keep recording, and never shared any of the songs she wrote herself. Fast forward to 20 years after her death and her songs are seeing the light of day, albeit through the interpretations of other artists. While Sharon Van Etten had chords for the title track, other artists had only lyrics to work with, making this album a collection of songs by artists like Julia Holter, Marissa Nadler, Isobel Campbell, and Josphine Foster, with lyrics by Dalton. The lineup alone should make Remembering Mountains an overlooked gem, but the thread of Dalton’s work tying the songs together makes it truly special.
New Order – Music Complete
New Order have existed under that name in various incarnations for 35 years, but they still hold a place as the quintessential party band for the types of kids who don’t get invited to a lot of parties. Music Complete will definitely get you dancing, and the loss of Peter Hook means that there’s something really genuine in the laments of broken relationships (and with such a distinctive style, Hook is actually pretty easy to copy). Plus the guest appearances from Iggy Pop, La Roux, and Brandon Flowers also bring in unique sinister vocals, over the top pop shine, and a kind of meta-New Order interpretation respectively.
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett is one of those artists that you really feel you could be friends with. She has no trouble relating the mundane in life with a dry delivery and a sense of humor that holds your interest. On Sometimes, she’s learned to use that voice to convey a deeper sense of ennui, as on “Depreston” and even hint at unexpected emotions other than boredom in “Dead Fox” before amping things back up with “No One Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party.” And that’s really why Courtney Barnett could be our pal; she’ll tell crazy stories and entertain a full room, but probably spend the next two weeks hiding at home. We can get behind that.