My love for music has been embedded since childhood, roughly around the same time I had started to develop a vested interest in films. The golden years of MTV were a crucial element during the formative stages of my life, and as I grew older, I was exposed to a wide variety of artists and genres which gave me valuable insight into cultivating my personal preferences when it comes to music I love to listen to. A brief but memorable phase of my late adolescence was my stint as a radio DJ for a local station in my hometown where the Billboard Hot 100 songs and other well-curated upscale tracks reigned supreme to a target audience that demanded sophisticated songs as opposed to unpalatable mass market tunes playing on the airwaves.
Throughout the years, technology has steadily evolved and the way I consumed my regular sonic fix has changed to reflect the passage of time and the kind of music I am willing to absorb. Back then, I heavily relied on radio and television to get maximum exposure on my favorite artists and find out about emerging talents in the scene. If I wanted to enjoy repeated listening sessions in the comfort of my home without resorting to my previous default options, then cassette tapes were somewhat a grudging compromise to the more expensive CDs housed in shiny jewel cases that I could not afford with my meager allowance at the time. Fast forward to my present age of not-quite-yet-30, the internet has become an invaluable source of easily discovering and acquiring music I love by way of high-quality MP3 downloads and high-definition music video viewing on YouTube.
So far, my musical tastes are more or less entrenched in what I really care to listen to nowadays, but there is still plenty of leg room should there be interesting aural avenues that deserve a place in my digital music library. And I do realize that, for a huge fan of music like myself, it has taken me quite a while to write a year-end blog post about the best in music for the past twelve months given that I have been doing this for the field of movies for a few years running. Better late than never, as the saying goes, and I am thankful to the sonic gods and goddesses that 2015 has blessed me with an eclectic plethora of harmonious choices that ultimately compelled me to compose this inaugural list of my handpicked finest sonic cuts of the year. From concise extended plays (EPs) to full-length studio albums (LPs), this is the Best in Music of 2015 presented in alphabetical order by artist.
ADELE • 25
It is powerfully humbling to realize that a precious vocal powerhouse like Adele is my generational contemporary. While I am still trying to navigate my personal and professional life out of the murky waters of my tumultuous young adulthood, the renowned singer-songwriter hailing from North London has already achieved a phenomenal amount of overwhelming personal and financial success solely on the fact that she sings about the kind of relatable misery that a mere mortal such as myself has experienced in my early twenties. Her best-selling and unanimously acclaimed breakthrough sophomore album was the kind of record that wasn’t just an influential treatise on the failure of a romantic relationship, but it was also a transcendent rumination on the poignant hardships that everyday people endure even after they celebrate their 21st birthdays. For Adele at that moment in time, one isn’t the loneliest number, but it is twenty-one.
Make no mistake: Adele is hardly the first artist to sing about universal themes such as heartbreak and love. So many of her celebrated predecessors in decades past have sung about the pitfalls of love and received stratospheric recognition for their work. And yet, in an era where most of today’s mainstream music is concerned about how the audience should “twerk it like Miley”, reminding listeners that they’re jamming to “Britney, bitch”, or some other trending nonsense, the old-school approach to her image and artistry is a welcome sucker punch to our jaded souls. For behind the big honey-biscuit-blonde hair, flawless eye makeup, and tastefully conservative tea-length dresses lies a monumental talent that spits upon the tried-and-tested marketing strategy that sex and impossible beauty standards always sells. And once again, she has proven with her third studio album that being true to her stunning voice and her full-figured fabulousness is a formula not to be messed with and something that can never be replicated by other artists in the music scene.
Where she has angrily wielded the Hammer of Heartbreak (looking right at you, Thor Odinson) and used it to obliterate a dysfunctional union on 21, Adele revisits the crumbled ruins of her past relationship several years and a “Skyfall” later with 25. Here, she deeply reflects upon the rubble she has caused with a mature perspective and ultimately presents the listener with a surprising evolution as far as lyrical themes and audio production is concerned. Adele’s latest LP is possibly a sonic manifestation of that traditional wedding adage of “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” in that her diverse choice of collaborators on the album—from Paul Epworth, Bruno Mars, and Ryan Tedder to Greg Kurstin, Max Martin, Danger Mouse, and Tobias Jesso, Jr.—have coalesced her sound into recognizable panoramic terrain while wisely guiding her into the hitherto unexpected musical fringes of her contemporaries in the industry.
She delivers devastatingly heart-wrenching ballads that we have come to expect from her (something old) by way of “Hello”, “Remedy”, and “When We Were Young”; she infuses a bit of playful and edgy sass (something new) with the stripped-back “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” that echoes the best of Taylor Swift at first listen; she channels fellow English songstress Florence Welch on “I Miss You” (something borrowed) with the track’s hauntingly sultry vocals and commanding sepulchral drums that wouldn’t sound out of place in an early Florence + The Machine record, together with the evocative gospel-tinged jam entitled “River Lea”; and she doesn’t disappoint with soulful and melancholic gems such as “Love In The Dark” and “Million Years Ago” (and something blue)—two prime examples that seemed to be culled from the playlist of Sadness from Pixar’s brilliant Inside Out. Adele may have explored new textures in terms of developing her sonic signatures, but it is her straightforward songwriting skills and unparalleled vocal talents that still carry the weight of the album.
Adele is a true rarity in today’s music scene, and her place in the pantheon of music legends is firmly secure with her third record that is sure to enter 2016 with a record-breaking excess of full steam in its emotional engines. With 25, the album is strong enough to drive anyone with a beating heart to shed tears on the inevitability of growing old, the gripping power of nostalgia, and the strength to face responsibilities in the wake of adulthood.
AUTRE NE VEUT • AGE OF TRANSPARENCY
It’s sort of funny how we live in a world that’s full of hypocritical bullshit that we are constantly demanding nothing but unfiltered honesty from news media outlets and online discussion forums to retail store sales assistants and public transportation drivers. But for most people, the one thing where we crave the truth above all is from our significant other. Boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, life partners—it doesn’t matter whether the relationship is straight or gay, for as long as both halves involved in the intimate partnership have no secrets to hide from each other, then everything is pretty much golden as far as anyone is concerned. But as anything that happens in life, nothing is perfect and nothing is forever. Even the best of relationships can unravel with even the smallest of untruths being uttered from the lips of one and into the ears of the other.
Which is why listening to Autre Ne Veut’s enlightening album, Age Of Transparency, is perhaps the equivalent of imbibing Veritaserum from the fictional universe of Harry Potter: the songs on this illuminating record speak primarily about the kind of nerve-wracking anxiety we allow ourselves to feel when we live such candid lives in the open and in the immediate presence of someone you have come to love and trust. Being in that position can be daunting for anyone, and the album as a whole is reflective of the emotional apprehension that comes with the territory of being in a relationship that may or may not be in danger of imploding if the fallacies we have repressed come creeping out of the cracks. The fact that this is a record which falls under the curious subgenre of PBR&B (or alternative R&B for the indignant and politically correct music genre purists reading this post) makes Age Of Transparency much more compelling even if you feel more or less unsettled with listening to its tracks from start to finish.
For the uninitiated, Autre Ne Veut is the nom de plume of one Arthur Ashin from North Carolina, who physically resembles a younger Moby with his lanky frame and bald head but sans glasses. His chosen stage name is roughly translated from French to English as “I want no other”, and it seems apt for Ashin who has eagerly dabbled into the alternative R&B scene back in 2010 and has never looked back since. Like most of his peers in the musical subgenre he has found comfort in, Ashin’s sound is often infused with unconventional electronic elements which lends the alternative aspect and his elastic vocals providing the R&B thrust of his preferred narrative. In his third LP effort, his voice possesses a pleading and uneasy quality in the way he delivers his thoughtful but passionate lyrics. But in certain places, his vocal performance is stretched to the point where he almost buckles under the intense weight of the sonic production splashed liberally with abrupt stuttering glitches or slow-processed rhythms. It’s as if Ashin is not ashamed in any way whatsoever of not always being in control of his primary instrument judging from the way he often moans, wails, and elongates the vowels of his verses as well as employing a wriggling falsetto.
The aural extremes that showcase Autre Ne Veut’s vocal stylings against the abrasive nature of his eccentric sound production are best exemplified on tracks like the album opener “On And On [Reprise]” as well as “Cold Winds” and “Switch Hitter”. But it is on two distinctive standouts on the album where Ashin truly shines as far as getting his sensual but coy voice to blend harmoniously with the intentionally robust sonic backdrop. In the nearly six-minute title track, he finds strength and confidence by using careful restraint on his singing backed by a slinky drumbeat and fervent string section. And on “World War, Part 02”, he expresses a sort of conflicted tone in his near-erotic performance amidst a gorgeous and glimmering electronic soundscape (plus that eerie but delectable “I-I-I-I-I-I-I” hook that prefaces most of the song’s verses) where he espouses to his lover that “this time won’t last forever, and your face won’t be enough”.
Autre Ne Veut is one of those emerging underground artists who you wish would stay in the shadows just a wee bit longer in the hopes that his sound will continue to develop when the time is finally ripe for him to stand under the mainstream spotlight. But as far as clearness is concerned, Ashin with his Age Of Transparency is a record that lays itself bare for us to enjoy and we should be all the more grateful for such candor.
BJÖRK • VULNICURA
There is perhaps no concept album quite like a breakup record. In its simplest definition, a breakup album is a collection of songs that conveys an artist’s mental and emotional state at the time that the record as a whole was written and recorded. It sounds deceptively easy in theory, but it is actually much difficult to execute in a successful and satisfying manner for both the artist and the audience listening to songs that often speak of love gone wrong. When done right, a breakup album can achieve mythical status within the ever-shifting landscape of music. There’s the gold standard that is Rumours by Fleetwood Mac; another example would be Alanis Morissette’s seminal alt-rock classic Jagged Little Pill; think also For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver; of course, 21 by Adele is practically a given. And if there is any justice in this world, Vulnicura by Björk should join those hallowed brokenhearted ranks as a breakup album par excellence.
Björk has always marched to the beat of her own avant-garde drum, and has consistently blazed the trail when it comes to producing highly innovative sounds that make her music very inimitable. Granted, majority of her back catalogue is tremendously challenging to digest for the average listener; but those with fearless tastes in music can appreciate the way she creates unusual yet enigmatic sonic surfaces bolstered by the sheer potency of her staggering soprano vocal range. Björk’s intrepid experimentation with her music has largely resulted in incredible results that have solidified her status as a musician who refuses to be pigeonholed into just one specific genre. And as a native Icelander who grew up with English as a secondary language, Björk’s songs have that peculiar yet poetic quality that elevates into a higher plane of lyricism the second she belts them out in her unique voice. After her ambitious venture in fusing nature and technology with her previous album, the ninth LP in her musical canon finds her looking down at the edge of the gloomy abyss that represents the breakdown of her long-term relationship with the American visual artist, Matthew Barney.
In this record, Björk repurposes the two core sonic elements she employed in her critically-acclaimed Homogenic album: beats and strings. This time, the production and arrangements are much darker and bleaker given the subject matter of her songs. Assisted by co-producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak—two of the brightest luminaries in the field of experimental electronica today—Björk has crafted exquisitely haunting songs that are raw and exposed, much like the gaping wound you see her sporting on the album cover. Another curious trait of the album is the fact that majority of the tracks have song lengths that are more than five minutes in duration; something that is a defining hallmark of fellow Icelandic music act, Sigur Rós. But rather than coming off as superfluous and self-indulgent, the longer runtime of Vulnicura’s songs means that the synthesis of moody electronica and chilly classical strings gets to luxuriate and blossom in order to provide a steady sonic bed where Björk’s vocals are allowed to wallow in utter misery. The album is a winter record of sorts just like her Vespertine release. But where Vespertine is a delicate snowfall of eroticism that comes with the discovery of new love, Vulnicura is the harsh and unforgiving blizzard of inconsolable desolation.
There’s absolutely no question that the centerpiece of the record is the ten-minute epic entitled “Black Lake”, which essentially functions as a funeral dirge of sorts after Björk has acknowledged that her disintegrated relationship with Barney cannot be salvaged whatsoever. The equally dark but more aggressive “Family” continues the lyrical theme of interring the charred remains of her relationship. She sets the tone of the album with opener “Stonemilker” and proceeds to reinforce the realization that she is heading towards the inevitable with “History Of Touches”. But it is her spectacular duet with Antony Hegarty on the dramatic and waltz-like “Atom Dance” that gives us an indication that Björk can still emerge from the ashes like a phoenix reborn.
By 2017, Iceland’s biggest and most successful musical export will have turned fifty-two and will have celebrated forty years of her illustrious and multi-faceted career in the music industry. Assuming—of course—that she has no plans of retiring at that point in her life, then we can be assured of the fact that Björk still has more to offer to the nonconformist audiophile if Vulnicura is anything to go by.
COLDPLAY • A HEAD FULL OF DREAMS
Okay, let’s get one thing straight now that we’re going to talk about Coldplay: you have every right to dismiss them on the grounds that they aren’t exactly the greatest rock band in the world, but that doesn’t mean that your negative opinion of them is exactly acceptable, either. Yes, this internationally renowned four-man British group has strangely earned a rather polarizing reaction from music fans over the years. Detractors and critics have accused them of producing overtly sentimental, cheesy, or sometimes pretentious drivel. Their most ardent defenders and supporters have emphasized that they’re being unfairly judged on the kind of music they make when majority of their repertoire since their inception has largely promoted themes of love, acceptance, and general positivity. While I can certainly understand the points presented on both sides of this unusual Coldplay Conundrum, I’ve largely stayed on neutral territory in that I can appreciate the band from an objective point of view, but there wasn’t any one album of theirs that I truly appreciated as a whole.
Consider the fact that I’ve only ever liked bits and pieces of their work across several LPs they have released. I pretty much only liked “Yellow” on Parachutes; “The Scientist” and “Clocks” were the only ones on A Rush Of Blood To The Head that caught my attention; and I much preferred “Speed Of Sound” on X+Y where most others loved “Fix You”. This has been a repeating pattern that I’ve noticed on every album that Coldplay has brought forth with every passing year, and I was afraid that I might likely die without ever encountering an album of theirs that actually spoke to me. My fears were assuaged upon hearing their seventh record which they christened as A Head Full Of Dreams. Coldplay front man Chris Martin has stated in an interview prior to the release of the album that he and his bandmates wanted to “make something colorful and uplifting” and that it would be something “you can shuffle your feet to”. The surprise announcement that there would also be collaborative appearances by Beyoncé and Tove Lo only heightened my curiosity and I was compelled to check this record out despite my reservations that I would only come out liking one or two songs.
I was wrong. I liked the entire record as a whole. Finally! I can now say with certainty that this is the first ever Coldplay album that I could fully get behind. Okay, there were a couple of filler tracks, but no album is truly perfect. Hell, I didn’t even like some of the songs on Adele’s much-vaulted 21. Stylistically, a lot of the tracks could carry the banner of “dance rock” given how uptempo the guitar, drums, and keyboard arrangements are. Credit should be given to Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, and Will Champion for augmenting their instrumentation with such enjoyable abandon. And considering how much I was obsessed with the celestial enchantment of “A Sky Full Of Stars” from their previous album, Ghost Stories, it feels like a lot of tracks on A Head Full Of Dreams went in that direction and I couldn’t be more pleased. But a disclaimer, though: just because I really like this album doesn’t mean I’ve officially declared my loyalty to #TeamProColdplay. Perhaps if they make another solid effort like this one, I may be just inclined to affirm where my allegiances lie.
The album opens on a strong note with the title track; a veritable serving of outsized stadium rock complete with a towering “Whoa-oh-oh-oh!” chant section that it’s hard not to tap your feet to it in enjoyment. First official single “Adventure Of A Lifetime” is just a groovy burst of tropical sunshine where the band winks at the influence of recent neo-funk pieces by Daft Punk and Mark Ronson. And with all due respect to Hozier, “Hymn For The Weekend” with the cameo of Queen Bey was a dazzlingly sacrosanct highlight that truly took me to church with its splendor. Swedish electropop singer-songwriter Tove Lo duets with Martin on a soaring ballad (“Fun”) that would give the band’s previous collaboration with Rihanna (“Princess Of China” on Mylo Xyloto) some serious self-competition. And the saccharine comeliness of “Amazing Day” is sure to make for a strong appearance on many a wedding reception while married couples dance to its sweeping hyper-romanticism.
I’m still a bit mystified as to how a band that has sold over 80 million records and embarked on several sold-out concert tours could have such a divisive effect on many music lovers. But if you ask me, I’d say Coldplay has more than enough steadfast optimism to block out the haters if A Head Full Of Dreams is any indication.
FKA TWIGS • M3LL155X
It’s a testament to an artist that the second you go viral in the early stages of your career, there can only be nothing but good things that will happen to you and your artistry if you play your cards right. And that is exactly what FKA Twigs has done since breaking out into the public consciousness with the sparse yet shimmering “Water Me” from her second EP release. A discerning listener always looking for the “next big thing” would still have plenty to like about the aforementioned track even without the driving power of its music video that went from zero to viral on YouTube after a short amount of time. In the video, FKA Twigs is framed in a very intimate close-up where we see her unusually beautiful features marked by her signature baby hairs stylishly gelled into charming swirls against her temples and a strangely mesmerizing CGI effect done on her already wide doe eyes that would have Japanese anime lovers foaming at the mouth with glee.
That was back in 2013, and Tahliah Barnett (real name of the enigmatic British act known as FKA Twigs) followed it up in 2014 with her entrancing full-length debut simply titled LP1 that had tons of music critics anointing her as the new queen of indietronica/alternative R&B and had music fans sit up and take notice of this emerging talent whose sultry vocals was a force to be reckoned with. From this album emerged the impenetrable splendor that is “Two Weeks”—a track that is perhaps the sexiest slow jam to have ever emerged in recent memory and is also a very insouciant ode to promoting infidelity with FKA Twigs seductively hissing out mischievous lines like “I can fuck you better than her” and “Give me two weeks [and] you won’t recognize her”. LP1 as a whole went in a similar vein as “Two Weeks” with the songs drenched in this hypnotic electro-R&B haze that perfectly sustained Barnett’s voice which sounds like the second coming of Aaliyah. So where does one go after such a critically-hailed introductory record? As far as Barnett is concerned, she went in a completely unexpected direction and gave birth to her third EP this year that she named M3LL155X.
Her glassy vocals still reign supreme on her latest offering, and Barnett exudes a surge of added confidence to her performance across the five songs that make up her third EP. Listening to the entirety of M3LL155X (pronounced as “Melissa”) makes you feel as if you are hearing the sounds of an upscale celestial nightclub from some faraway galaxy in a distant alternate universe. The sonic production done by FKA Twigs (with the assistance of Boots and Tic) feels so futuristic, textural, and alien but at the same time it grounds the whole record into familiar, comforting territory thanks to the alluring prowess of Barnett’s vocal talents. The complex ideas she had been nurturing in her past efforts have crystallized and hardened into something that is feral and edgy but still has that reassuring aura of accessibility that can entice the average listener into her fray. The fact that her EP comes complete with a sixteen-minute short film featuring nearly all the songs on the record proves that Barnett is nothing short of daring and ambitious when it comes to packaging her image as an artist.
Witness the triumphant swagger of “Figure 8” which opens the EP: Barnett channels a spectral quality to her singing as she traverses a sluggish yet coarsely industrial soundscape before her vocals ultimately get shredded via cacophonous electronic flourishes with interesting precision in the latter half of the track as she spits out a rap section with a flow that would make her peers green with envy. “I’m Your Doll” oozes unfiltered sensuality with undertones of sexual submission to her dominant partner, while “In Time” crawls out of the darkness and into the flashing strobe lights with a chunky dance beat and sees FKA Twigs chastising her lover with a punchy hook like “you’ve got a goddamned nerve”. She continues to exhibit her unshakable braggadocio with “Glass + Patron”, where FKA Twigs champions the power of confidence and commanding the listener jamming to the track to “hold that pose for me”. Closing track “Mothercreep” ends the EP with a satisfying finish as Barnett sighs and moans her way amidst a throbbing and skittering bass-heavy beat.
Despite the highly concise nature of M3LL155X, it cannot be denied that FKA Twigs has successfully packed more creative ideas into her third EP than artists more established than her could ever dream of putting into a full-length album. Less is certainly more, but when FKA Twigs pares it down to perfection, she does it in a way that other artists should take extensive notes on exactly how it should be done.
FLORENCE + THE MACHINE • HOW BIG, HOW BLUE, HOW BEAUTIFUL
Since breaking into the music scene with her gut-busting 2009 debut with her supporting band dubbed as The Machine, Florence Welch has established herself as a modern-day indie rock goddess who seems to be an amalgamation of William Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott with bits of Stevie Nicks thrown in for good mystical measure. Possessing a maelstrom of a voice that was clearly intended for colossal arenas, the flame-haired British songstress operates on a majestic scale when it comes to creating the kind of music she likes to put out for the world to hear. It’s only fitting considering that her God-given pipes could very well give the most powerful wind machines a run for their money. And it’s even more impressive considering all of this is coming from a woman who had absolutely no formal training in developing her singing voice. There is something innately charming about a surprisingly soft-spoken artist like Welch because in her steady rise to stardom, she has acquired a massive global fan base that includes bigger and more mainstream artists in the industry like Kanye West and Beyoncé. The kind of adoration that Welch has received from fans, critics, and her music peers alike is largely attributed to the fact that her songs are both emotional and anthemic in nature. For her, the mantra is—and always will be—go big or go home.
Her previous two records (debut album Lungs and second release Ceremonials) underscored this maximalist aphorism that Welch exercises to great effect. Tracks like “Dog Days Are Over”, “Drumming Song”, “Shake It Out”, and “No Light, No Light” have become definitive standards in her repertoire because they embody the kind of spiritual grandiloquence that not only affects your soul on a lyrical level, but they also have the astonishing capacity to make you dance like a Whirling Dervish spiraling out of control. Even when you put Welch out of her typical indie rock/chamber pop wheelhouse and place her in an unexpected genre—as was the case with her outstanding EDM collaboration with Calvin Harris on “Sweet Nothing”—the immense power of her voice and the persuasive delivery of her lyrics still comes out shining bright like a supernova without coming across as trite and pretentious. But when it comes to exercising the art of restraint, Florence Welch can still do no wrong if How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is any indication.
Hardcore fans of Florence + The Machine such as myself have no reason to fear with her third album. There are still the opulent choruses and lively instrumentation to be enjoyed throughout the record, but what Welch has done on her recent release is putting subtle and reserved production flourishes that balance out her archetypal grandiosity. Another notable evolution to her music is in her songwriting for the new album: she has mostly dispensed with the numinous lyrical metaphors about ghosts, devils, and other supernatural beings in favor of a more direct and candid approach and she is all the better for it. And where thundering percussion was the central conceit of Lungs and Ceremonials, uplifting brass arrangements take center stage on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. All of these elements have combined to form a cohesive and rewarding album that ticks all the boxes of what we can expect from Florence Welch and her valiant Machine.
If you are looking for the stadium-worthy anthems to make your day, then look no further with the striking title track as well as songs like “What Kind Of Man”, “Queen Of Peace”, and “Third Eye”. In these vigorous pieces, Welch sings emotionally potent verses that feel like a master’s discourse on epic songwriting that flawlessly marries fantasy with reality. She pens a fantastic love letter to the city of Los Angeles where she decided to get hurt “between a crucifix and the Hollywood sign”; she croons on how her lover “inspired a fire of devotion that lasted for twenty years” after just one kiss; she sees herself “dissolving like the setting sun” because her partner is driving her away; and she joyfully extols the listener to live life to the fullest, exclaiming that “you deserve to be loved and you deserve what you are given”. Even on the superbly subdued cuts like “Long + Lost” and “St. Jude”, her softness still cuts deep like a knife against the viscera of our skin.
You can say this much about Florence Welch and her impressive third album: you can always expect big things from her, her stardom is destined for atmospheric blue heights, and her music will always remain beautiful for as long as she stays true to her towering voice and her magical artistry.
JAMIE XX • IN COLOUR
There is that peculiar liminal space you often encounter whenever you’re rubbing shoulders with chic night owls in a posh VIP lounge bar, dining in a fancy but affordable restaurant, or perusing through a fashionable clothing boutique: you hear the music playing on their state-of-the-art sound system and you find yourself craving for something that catches your ear and which you can mildly groove to, but still unobtrusive enough to allow you some breathing room to just relax and appreciate the environment of the location you’re in. In other words: you want the Goldilocks formula that’s not too loud and not too upbeat, but also something that’s not too quiet or too relaxed. That type of music is often hard to pin down, especially if you’re really looking for something specific to accurately capture that smooth but fluid mood you’re seeking. It’s a good thing, then, that Jamie xx has exactly what you’re hankering for by way of his solo debut effort, In Colour.
Jamie xx—real name Jamie Smith from England—is one-third of the dream pop outfit that is The xx. He is the one responsible for enhancing the instrumentation and breathy vocals provided by his colleagues Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim and creating the elegantly discreet construction that has defined their sound as a music group and made them the darlings of the indie music cognoscenti. Aside from handling production duties for his band, he also does solo work as a DJ and remix artist where he has reworked songs for the likes of Radiohead, Florence + The Machine, and Four Tet. As a producer, Smith’s signature is creating a clean and atmospheric sound that hovers on the overlap between chillout and dance music. This characteristic is evident on tracks he has done for The xx like “Reunion” and “Chained”—the latter of which makes judicious use of tension through muffled oscillating beats and a shimmering guitar interlude. On his solo album, Jamie xx has effectively created a collection of songs that further expands his range as an electronic music producer.
Listening to In Colour feels like a “eureka moment” in that you just know this feels like the perfect record you can play during intimate dinner parties at your home and your fastidious tastemaker guests will probably be asking you with curiosity, “Hey, what’s this music you’re playing right now? I kind of like it!” It’s a smart soundtrack to play in the background while having scintillating conversations with like-minded individuals over delicious food and drinks, but it’s also very much an album that you can play while doing leisurely activities by yourself like lounging by the swimming pool or being curled up in your room while surfing the internet. It can be argued that In Colour is an album that doesn’t really need to be placed in a particular place and time; it can stand alone on its own, and yet it can suitably function as a sonic backdrop that can set the right minimalist aesthetic. And despite the cameo appearances of his bandmates on the album doing guest vocal work, this is still very much Smith’s pride and joy as majority of the tracks on the LP are instrumental in nature.
And what kaleidoscopic instrumentals they are! Album opener “Gosh” hits the ground running but at a cool pace and then effortlessly sashays into a lounge-like strut with “Sleep Sound”. Smith infuses a lush tropical feel to the mix by incorporating steel drum sounds on “Obvs” but then changes gears with a brief and hazy interlude in “Just Saying”. The instrumental tracks that make up the latter half of In Colour—namely “Hold Tight”, “The Rest Is Noise”, and “Girl”—proudly wave the flag of future garage and showcases the evolution of Jamie xx outside of the work he does with his band. And speaking of his band, the guest vocals provided by two-thirds of The xx have shaped up to form introspective moments of romance from the perspective of forlorn party goers adrift in a nightclub. Sim headlines on the calm topography of “Stranger In A Room” where he confesses under the blue lights that “there’s always someone I’ve wanted to know with no way of it working back home”. And on the slinky neo-discotheque vibe of “Loud Places”, Croft wistfully questions to a prospective lover she meets in the crowd: “Didn’t I take you to higher places you can’t reach without me?”
Smith has painted a veritable rainbow of artfully produced sounds on In Colour that you might be inclined to wish the next album he does with Croft and Sim would step out of the pensive and grayscale miasma that The xx is wont to do. Here’s hoping that if ever that doesn’t come to fruition, Jamie xx can always tinker with the vibrant spectrum of production tricks he can do for his second solo effort.
JOSÉ GONZÁLEZ • VESTIGES + CLAWS
The popular phrase “Speak softly and carry a big stick” is commonly attributed to former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and is often interpreted to mean that one merely needs to exercise subtlety but can have the ability to express audacity if desired. Many notable artists in the indie folk genre—i.e. Damien Rice, Vienna Teng, Angus + Julia Stone, Priscilla Ahn, Jack Johnson—can be likened to this well-known axiom in the sense that their music is often defined by nuanced sounds but the forceful impact of their work lies in their astute lyricism. Stripped of any artifice provided by extroverted instrumentation or fancy production techniques, indie folk artists believe purely on the art of simplicity that allows them to be direct with the listener. But just because their sonic palette is largely mellow in nature doesn’t mean that they aren’t able to advocate about intricate ideas in their music. Just listen to Vestiges + Claws by José González and you’ll be surprised at how an album that sounds so peaceful could evoke such grand and encompassing philosophical themes.
But first, a quick primer on José González: born in Sweden to a family of Argentinean immigrants, had musical roots in hardcore punk but switched to less aggressive sounds after picking up the classical guitar, released his first solo effort with a four-track EP in June 2003, and the rest is history. Oh, and the fact that he’s also a vegetarian and an atheist. The latter two factoids about González notwithstanding, there is something about his music that uniquely separates him from his indie folk peers and that is his facility to write songs that are courageous enough to ponder about the convolutions of human nature and our place in the universe. Not content to just sing acoustic guitar-based songs about love, González applies a more cerebral touch when it comes to his compositions as evidenced by his previous LP released in 2007, In Our Nature, which was partly inspired by reading books such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and Practical Ethics by Peter Singer. Eight years later, González has largely been under the radar but has been busy making new music in the interim and observing the changes the world has gone through during that timeframe. Vestiges + Claws is the result of his long-gestating scrutiny, and he presents his work with an unvarnished and objective hand.
The sounds to be heard on the album are divine and organic, and the sparse ambiance González creates through finger-picking his trusty acoustic guitar is a perfect counterpoint to González’s vocals whose low register and unhurried cadence intones his thoughtful lyrics with a dose of conviction. Indeed, it’s startling to discover that a singer-songwriter like González who never raises his voice could impart a driving sense of urgency to his songs upon listening to them. It’s very much like his famous cover of Massive Attack’s iconic “Teardrop” where he has substituted the well-known heartbeats and synths and lullaby singing of Elizabeth Fraser with his insistent guitar strumming and cool vocal timbre. The lyrics themselves might not have changed, but presenting it in his style now puts the song in an entirely different milieu than to what we were expecting from the original. Simply put: when listening to the songs of Vestiges + Claws, González encourages the listener to place everything in context even if the world around us has changed with the passage of time.
This intellectual lesson itself begins on the solemn opening track “With The Ink Of A Ghost” where González examines that we are “witness to the changing tides” and also “finding ways how to make sense of all the lights”. On the uplifting cheerfulness of “Leaf Off/The Cave”, he heartens the listener to “take a moment to reflect where you’re going” and continues to nurture the ideals of hope and peace with the pastoral “Every Age” where he wishes at the end of the song that we are able to “build a place where we can all belong”. But despite the underlying message of sanguinity on the first half of the record, González still dares to be confrontational and theoretical on “What Will” as he presents to the listener a number of possibilities that would be the legacy of humanity: Will it be “silence acceptance of the norm”? Will it be “faith in dogma or reasoning”? Will it be “envy or generosity”? Or will it be through “wishful thinking or reality”?
Which brings us back to Teddy Roosevelt’s quotable citation: José González can indeed project an impression of delicacy with his music, but rather than carrying a big stick to reinforce his message to the world, he will instead use Vestiges + Claws to fight for his indie folk cause.
KASKADE • AUTOMATIC
It’s amazing to think that my earliest exposure to house music (before the letters E, D, and M put together was even considered a big thing) was way back in my high school years. It was 2003 and I was in my junior year when I knew about “It’s You, It’s Me”—the foremost proper house track I committed to memory at the time. I don’t remember exactly where I first heard that song, but I vividly recall how I felt when I first listened to that track. There was that feeling of chilled bliss coupled by the sense that I had stumbled onto a music genre that opened my ears to a largely uncharted world of dance music that I had never imagined I would come to love as I grew older. To this very day, Kaskade has firmly remained my favorite DJ above all others because had it not been for that groovy house track he released over a decade ago, I would not have had the foresight to get into house music and its various cousin genres at an early age before it exploded into the ears and minds of less-attuned listeners still feeding on alternative rock groups, rival boy-and-girl bands, and solo pop stars.
Sure enough, electronic dance music eventually made its prophetic and volatile crossover into mainstream music just as I was dropping out of college. Whether you were into pop, rock, or hip-hop, they now had that lustrous sheen of dance music production to give the Holy Trinity of Music Genres a little bit of electric and chart-topping personality. DJs such as David Guetta, Calvin Harris, and Daft Punk now had the power and privilege to collaborate with major artists such as Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, and Pharrell Williams. But considering the homogenous state of the EDM scene as we know it today, it’s such a hard pill to swallow when you get tired of listening to so many different DJs and dance music producers employing the same bass drops, laser-like synthesizers, and four-on-the-floor beats to their Beatport accounts, VIP nightclub residencies, and live festival set lists. We have reached a saturation point so dense that it’s hard to appreciate new material from any of your favorite mixmasters. Fortunately, I wasn’t let down by Kaskade’s latest album entitled Automatic.
My automatic predisposition for Mr. Ryan Raddon aside (haha, see what I did there?), I have to admit that it actually took me several heavy-duty spins of his new record before I began to appreciate the album as a whole. When compared to any of his previous releases, Automatic doesn’t quite live up to Kaskade’s lofty standards but it still delivers a very solid and well-rounded performance compared to the works of his peers in the EDM arena. What is interesting about the record is that Kaskade has managed to round up so many guest vocalists and collaborators on just one album. Before, Raddon was just content to use a minimum of two or three guest singers, often female, and utilize their vocal talents on multiple songs for each album he has released (i.e. Haley Gibby, Sunsun, and Becky Jean Williams). But on Automatic, eleven out of the fourteen songs feature a different singing act to breathe life onto his stunningly produced dance tracks. But despite the stacked guest list assembled on his newest offering, Kaskade is the one who remains front and center on the record as he juggles his associates with ease while also honing in on his masterful skills as a dance music producer.
And here’s another pro to consider: the diversity of guest vocalists means that we get a succulent feast of complementary sonic flavors as we progress through the album. Ilsey certainly has a charming effect on the bouncy “Disarm You” and Estelle happily glides on rays of nu-disco sunshine with “Day Trippin’”. John Dahlbäck assists Raddon on “A Little More” as they both tag-team to give singer Sansa a soundscape of cosmic proportions in order to give her relaxing vocals a chance to shine. But the album is not just about the girls; Kaskade gives the guys their moment in the flashing strobe lights as well. Scott Shepard adds a sexy and soulful touch to the cool house vibes of “Breaking Up”, while Two Nations lends an attractive indie rock feeling to “Papercuts”. Raddon himself even does serviceable vocal duties on the opening track, “We Don’t Stop”, which proves that even with the appearance of his invited comrades-in-arms, he’s still the one leading the charge.
Kaskade may not be considered as the world’s best DJ for some dance music aficionados out there, but it cannot be denied that his veteran status in the industry has earned him a kind of pedigree that provides him with the tenacity and poise to reinforce his brand of music as something that is essential and influential. Automatic is proof that even someone of Raddon’s world-class caliber as a DJ refuses to go on autopilot.
KELELA • HALLUCINOGEN
When you’re dabbling in the popular field of R&B, what immediately comes to mind for most listeners is the presence of stealthy beats and vocals that may have been soaked in the sweetest honey. Sexy slow jams or funky floor fillers are often par for the course in this particular genre, but when you branch off into its indie offshoot that is alternative R&B, then all bets are off if certain artists are willing to disregard the standard R&B playbook and forge their own unique trails. Keeping things inventive while still making your sound tethered in a common headspace for the average listener is perhaps the principal challenge that alternative R&B musicians have to reconcile. To paraphrase the words of the poet Robert Frost, the often mutable terrain that underlines the point alternative R&B is perhaps the reason why the genre is the road less traveled by musicians in the indie scene. But in the case of Hallucinogen by Kelela, there is no fear to be heard on this record, but simply a brave declaration that someone of her rookie status can tread the path of alternative R&B, take the stubborn bull by the horns, and bring that elusive genre to down her knees with relative ease.
Who is Kelela, you ask? Google is at your disposal to answer your queries about this rising star, but since you’re here reading this year-end list of my best picks in music, here’s the shorthand 411: born to Ethiopian-American immigrants, Kelela Mizanekristos began her music career in 2010 in the indie scene and achieved significant street cred via her 2013 debut mixtape Cut 4 Me and received praise from the likes of Björk and Solange Knowles. Cut to 2015, and she released her follow up with an extended play that is a concentrated form of the ideas she had been playing around on her critically-approved mixtape. Emphasis on the word ‘concentrated’ because this six-track EP is exactly what it says on the label: listening to the songs can very well leave a hallucinogenic impression upon the listener with their potent lyrics, incandescent sonic canvas, and Kelela’s buttery-smooth voice that seems fated to give flavor to any aural landscape she can get her hands on.
For her latest offering, she enlisted the services of Arca and Boots—the ultramodern music producers du jour who have lent their Midas touches for the likes of FKA Twigs, Run The Jewels, and Kanye West. And rather than shaping her vocals to accommodate their vanguard production, her voice appears to adjust the eerie aural worlds being constructed around her. This gives the EP a very elegant but progressive approach on how to perfectly deconstruct the very fabric of traditional R&B and transform it into something modern yet accessible. In her last release, Kelela acted as a musical magpie by gathering sundry sounds of various genres—electronica, grime, house, dubstep, techno—and put them all together in a strange collage that would have been the downfall of any lesser artist but on her, it just works. Hallucinogen is a continuation of her plucky examination to push the genre of alternative R&B to its unimaginable limits and succeeds in doing so.
“A Message” beautifully opens the EP with Kelela slithering through a mysterious soundscape with the sluggish pace of flowing molasses as she mourns her status as the ex-girlfriend of her former lover by exclaiming that she “left some things behind [and I] don’t need your help”. She exerts a firm control of her sexual dominance on the feline grace of “Gomenasai” by confidently delivering something so brassy to her partner like “you’re my bitch tonight, but tomorrow you won’t admit it”. There’s a noticeable throwback element present on the danceable production “Rewind”, where Kelela pays respectful homage to Janet Jackson during her The Velvet Rope era. She braces for the unavoidable emotional disconnection with her lover on the soft fluorescence of “All The Way Down” as she confessess that she “cared before but baby now I don’t give a fuck”. Kelela’s vocals are deliberately processed to unintelligibility on the brief and obscure title track that it is roughly an instrumental palate cleanser before segueing into the closing track, “The High”, where she coos and moans her verses amidst a palpitating heartbeat rhythm that feels solemn as opposed to being joyfully intimate.
Fearlessness is probably an apt noun to affix to an artist like Kelela. In the music video for “A Message”, she starts off sporting waist-grazing dreadlocks before shearing her mane to shoulder-length right in the middle of the track. It’s that kind of audacious attitude that gives credence and profundity to a record like Hallucinogen. But be warned: like the best of recreational drugs, this EP should only be taken in leisurely moderation.
THE WEEKND • BEAUTY BEHIND THE MADNESS
When you are a highly talented musician and your star is ordained to be on the ascendant, the prudent move would be to not lose the momentum and follow through with concrete material that will establish your integrity as an artist to both fans and critics alike. But the trajectory from beloved indie fave to viral mainstream superstar can only be achieved if you have the right elements at play. First, the talent has to be so palpable that even the most cynical music fans can recognize a rough diamond that needs to be polished. Second, the artist must project a certain level of mystique at the grassroots level in order to generate the right kind of buzz. Third, the output must be strong enough to withstand critical scrutiny or else the first and second requirements will be all for naught. Once you have ticked all three boxes, then you are pretty much cleared to have the world at the palm of your hand, just like what The Weeknd did with Beauty Behind The Madness.
Out of the PBR&B Class of 2015 rightfully honored on this list—previously mentioned alums Arthur Ashin, Tahliah Barnett, and Kelela Mizanekristos—Abel Tesfaye (the scruffily handsome man behind The Weeknd) has made Toronto proud with his meteoric rise to mainstream fame and success. But that isn’t to say that he has fully abandoned his alternative R&B roots; Tesfaye has stayed true to his original sound and gave it a more radio-friendly finish in his crossover to pop culture consciousness. When you think about it, it’s quite impressive on Tesfaye’s part given that his lyrical subject matter heavily deals with very shady things such as recreational drug use, heavy-duty partying, and getting the nasty on with the ladies. He has even managed to package all of his tortured bad boy reflections into an album that everyone and their grandmother have enjoyed since its release earlier this year. Songs with NC-17 rated themes but whose sound is just right for playing on the radio and on family-friendly affairs? Shut the fuck up and take my fucking money!
Curiously, despite his newfound attention in the general public nowadays, Tesfaye hasn’t lost his cult status as a PBR&B lothario in the indie music scene. Mainly it’s because of the fact that The Weeknd prefers to downplay his celebrity and focus on what’s important and that is his music. His previously released mixtapes in 2011 and a debut studio album in 2013 would be considered as the research and development stage of Tesfaye’s career. They were buzzworthy under-the-radar works that brought him to the attention of much bigger stars in the hierarchy of the music industry. Contacts with top producers and collaborations with the likes of Drake and Ariana Grande soon followed, and Tesfaye’s signal began to ping on the public radar. And with the release of his second LP, it feels like The Weeknd has earned the equivalent of a king’s coronation. And while the saying does go that “heavy is the head that bears the crown”, Tesfaye doesn’t appear to be bothered in the slightest because he’s got much more important things to sing about on the new record.
Things like informing the listener to spread the word to others that he has finally fucking arrived on “Tell Your Friends” or his remarkable capability to “make that pussy rain” in “Often”. Unexpected collaborations with the likes of Ed Sheeran (“Dark Times”) and Lana Del Rey (“Prisoner”) have resulted in smolderingly nuanced songs that present a more sensitive side to The Weeknd’s persona. But he still finds time to play the tormented gangsta antihero on tracks like “The Hills” where he confesses to his booty call lover that “when I’m fucked up, that’s the real me”, implying that his true self only manifests when he is not sober. The late Amy Winehouse would have approved of such a frank admission in his music. And of course, there is the chart-topping, earworm worthy, dancefloor-ready pièce de résistance that is “Can’t Feel My Face” where the funky beats can’t hide the fact that the lyrics are a metaphor about snorting cocaine with your bae. Whoa, there! Grandma is probably clutching her heirloom Mikimoto pearl necklace if she listened carefully to Tesfaye’s unapologetic lyrics delivered in a voice that makes you think Michael Jackson himself has reincarnated from the grave. But as he reassures us on the song, we probably shouldn’t worry too much about it if it makes our booty dance.
In summation, Beauty Behind The Madness walks the fine line between euphoria and melancholia with both sides splashed liberally with the sort of tasteful intemperance that Tesfaye knows how to wield with a sure hand. If he continues in this uphill course, then every one of us will wish that every day would be The Weeknd.
ZERO 7 • EP3
The Dictionary Of Obscure Sorrows defines the invented word ‘chrysalism’ as a noun that encapsulates the feeling of an “amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm”. If there was a genre that would evoke the feeling of chrysalism for me, then it would have to be chillout music, hands down. There is just something about listening to downtempo electronica that provides the perfect ambiance not just for rainy days, but also during ephemeral moments when your self-imposed isolation gives you that feeling of bliss; the feeling that you’ve untethered yourself from the stress of the daily grind. We live such fast-paced lives in an increasingly digital age that we often overlook those intangible pockets of solitude that provides us with the opportunity to unplug and unwind. Ambient music is a valuable gateway to access the tranquility we take for granted, and it’s a good thing Zero 7 have returned with EP3 to act as a key in unlocking that serenity.
British duo Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker started out as sound engineers in the 1990s mixing music and remix work soon followed where they began to retool songs for musicians like Lenny Kravitz, Sneaker Pimps, and even Terry Callier with his “Love Theme From Spartacus”. It was when they released their first two extended plays that they officially began to work under the name Zero 7 after a trip to Mexico and hanging out at a local bar inspired the numerical moniker. In 2001, they rose to prominence in the UK music scene after releasing their debut studio album entitled Simple Things which featured several guest vocalists that included one of the earliest appearances of Sia Furler—the media-shy Australian singer-songwriter who we know today as the mastermind behind the powerful anthem called “Chandelier” but began lending her incredible vocals to a dreamy Zero 7 classic named “Destiny”. Three more albums followed in the succeeding years but the pair reached a hiatus of sorts after releasing their last album back in 2009, and it was only recently that they discreetly resurfaced with their latest EP as a possible sign that a fourth album may be in the works.
Longtime and loyal fans of Zero 7 have reason to rejoice with EP3 as the record harkens back to the pair’s chillout roots. This clear deference to their musical origins is evident on the tracks featured on the EP, but they have added understated but new production touches here and there to keep things rooted in the present. Still, one can’t help but feel that sense of nostalgia upon listening to the songs, especially if you’ve been lucky enough such as myself to be exposed early on with their back catalogue when they first started out. But if your ears are still virgin to the music of Zero 7, then EP3 is a welcome introduction to the group that would likely propel you to explore their earlier works if you end up liking the songs featured on the record. Binns and Hardaker haven’t lost their touch and the duo still has the uncanny knack to recruit the right vocalist and place that singer in the perfect song. In EP3, the three vocal collaborators featured proved to be the right selections as they deftly laid their voices on the soothing slices of Zero 7’s fascinating ambient electronica soundscapes.
Opener “400 Blows” features Aussie indie newcomer Danny Pratt on lead vocals and his warm caramel voice exhibits a sort of anguished urgency with lyrics that imply a sort of physically abusive relationship that is detrimental on his part as he reveals that “living with this will wither us both, and I felt every blow”. Binns and Hardaker include a cover from the now-defunct British new wave group Talk Talk in the track “The Colour Of Spring” with Only Girl entrusted with singing duties. Her cool and dulcet tones evoke a brooding, after-hours quality to the piece and it is appropriate considering there’s a part on the song where she promises to “immerse in that one moment, [and] left in love to everything”. And on the transcendent fragility of “Last Light”, Swedish indie folk troubadour José González (prominently featured earlier on this list) explores a breathtakingly cinematic expanse of evocative sunset sounds as he imparts his trademark vocal placidness while repeating an expressively assuring mantra to the listener by the track’s end like a baby’s lullaby: “I’ll keep you safe and sound… Keep you safe and sound… Safe and sound”.
And isn’t that the point of experiencing something so redolent like chrysalism? That we want to embrace the feeling of being safe and sound in the face of Mother Nature’s wrath? Well, look no further than EP3 by Zero 7 and you’ll find yourself being wrapped in a comforting cocoon of pure and distilled chillout heaven.