Saturday, December 26, 2015

10 Favorite Albums of 2015

2015 was an overload for new music. An inordinate amount of emerging artists entered the scene, and even more artists made their returns with new albums. In Twitter stan terms, I was slain by the pop music scene this year. Albums that made this list gained their positions by initial impressions, overall quality, and endurance to multiple replays. Some albums unexpectedly grew on me, while others were killed by their lack of longevity. 

Revival is definitely more than just an album title for Selena Gomez. This album cycle has marked a critical rebound, a sonic transformation, and a massive confidence boost for Gomez. While the set doesn't brings anything particularly new to the table, its longevity and replay value have been shockingly solid -- and quite frankly, it has also gotten better with age, surpassing my original rating for it. Its R&B-infused synthpop backdrops are much more subtle than anything showcased on Stars Dance or the three albums from Selena Gomez & The Scene, allowing her fragile, breathy vocals to shine through. Perhaps this was the setting she was always meant for, in place of the overwhelming, synth-heavy whirlwinds that forced her to push her vocals out at a shout. This Revival did her well.

Songs of choice: "Revival," "Hands to Myself," "Good for You," "Me & the Rhythm," "Survivors"

Melanie Martinez's persona may not seem believable at first, but after one listen to Cry Baby, it's clear that she is quite immersed in the demented childhood nightmare she has created. She doesn't break character even once through the 13 tracks, translating adult themes (sex. heartbreak, insanity, rape) to playground stories without missing a beat (even the tracks I initially didn't like have grown on me). She crafted this album precisely, all the way down to lyric patterns (check out the verses of "Alphabet Boy") and an accompanying storybook to tie the album's songs together, and it paid off.

Songs of choice: "Sippy Cup," "Carousel," "Pity Party," "Mrs. Potato Head," "Mad Hatter"

As problematic or annoying as people may find her as a person, Halsey sure can craft a pleasing sonic atmosphere. If the music industry is a city, her debut concept album Badlands is a neon-lit, dingy alleyway. A product of a viral, Tumblr-using generation, she rasps her way through flowery lyrics over dense synth soundscapes that follow the path paved by Lana Del Rey's Born to Die. She cross-breeds a number of twenty-first century influences without forgetting the power of a well-crafted hook or losing sight of her imaginary dystopia. Kind of melodramatic? Yeah. Kind of typical? Yeah. Still really good? Yeah.

Songs of choice: "Roman Holiday," "Ghost," "Colors," "Gasoline," "Drive"

For someone who is churning records out like Rihanna circa 2005-2012, Lana Del Rey still isn't lacking when it comes to quality. Honeymoon displays what she has learned from all three of her major label releases, mixing those sets' influences into a moody, bluesy melting pot. And despite her overt abuse of the word "blue" and her walking the line of self-parody, her lyrics are still as still charming as ever. She's a far stretch from who we were introduced to as Lana Del Rey in 2012; while still an enigmatic character, her affinity for all things Hollywood seems to have been tainted in the past few years and the "gangster Nancy Sinatra" curtain has dropped. But most importantly, she's more confident and unabashed than she's ever been... and to think that this is only the Honeymoon of her brighter future with concert-goers and critics alike.

Songs of choice: "Music to Watch Boys to," "Terrence Loves You," "High by the Beach," "Salvatore"

While he brings nothing new to the table sonically on his debut album, Troye Sivan works alt-pop like a pro and teaches our generation a thing or two about sincerity and uninhibited expression along the way. Blue Neighbourhood is an intimate affair, revealing feelings of regret, hopelessness, nostalgia, and love through roomy soundscapes and Sivan's smooth croons. He manages to transport us to his own world without hiding behind the mirage of a concept album -- and it's a mesmerizing trip.

Songs of choice: "Fools," "Youth," "Heaven," "Talk Me Down," "Lost Boy," "Suburbia"

This year, Grimes took it upon herself to add a lick of mainstream pop sensibility to her material that meets halfway between the oddity of Visions and the flamboyance of her 2013 single "Go." Unlike her previous albums, Art Angels seems like a polished piece of work -- not just an album of enjoyable demos. Her delivery has improved (especially that enunciation) and she taught herself how to play violin, guitar, and piano to layer an organic energy with her synthpop bases. With this album, she has concreted her status as a spectacular, ever-evolving, all-in-one package of a vocalist, songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer -- spare the two featured guest vocalists, all of this is still a one-woman show.

Songs of choice: "Flesh without Blood," "Kill V. Maim," "REALiTi," "Venus Fly," "Butterfly"

Ryn Weaver has a knack for telling (err... singing) stories. The Fool, produced in full by Benny Blanco and Passion Pit's Michael Angelakos, carries itself with a campy style that blurs the borders of pop, acoustic singer-songwriter, and folk and is tied together by Weaver's vibrato-rich, commanding vocals and sense of adventure. Perhaps the most important element of the album, though, is the co-dependence between the music and the story arc that it follows; when digested as a whole, the album follows clear tales of a nomadic Weaver and comes full circle upon the booming climax of its grand finale, "New Constellations." Albums as consistent and focused as this one are hard to come by, which makes it even more special.

Songs of choice: "OctaHate," "Pierre," "The Fool," "Traveling Song," "New Constellations"

When Ellie Goulding told us that her third LP, Delirium, would be "big," she wasn't kidding. This album takes her to new heights; the monstrous 16-track set blurs into an hour-long burst of euphoria. She set out to make a pop album that is quality, spirited, and fulfilling, and that is exactly what she did: the album embodies the idea that fun, straightforward, love-oriented pop songs do not have to be chintzy. Since 2012's Halcyon, she has become more confident in her vocal abilities, which allows these tracks to gleam; even when it is embedded in booming productions courtesy of Max Martin and Greg Kurstin, Goulding's untouchable voice isn't compromised and is a vital element to this album's success. The album may not be her most personal, but it's definitely her most fun and ear-catching to date.

Songs of choice: "Aftertaste," "On My Mind," "Holding on for Life," "Love Me Like You Do," "Army," "Devotion," "Scream It Out"

Carly Rae Jepsen is easily the underdog of the year, if not the decade. After slams of being a run-of-the-mill one-hit wonder, she came back swinging with punches that are stronger than we could have ever imagined on E•MO•TION. Sure, this album potentially benefits from a Henry IV effect of sorts; with Kiss clearly being an admittedly average, rush-released effort to capitalize on "Call Me Maybe," it wouldn't have taken much for Jepsen's third LP to seem impressive by comparison. That didn't stop Jepsen, however, from taking her time and curating an album that tackles '80s-inspired synthpop with the rigor that her contemporaries lack. Whereas her past album cycle was all about radio airplay, E•MO•TION puts Jepsen in a category of her own; an artist who makes industrial strength pop that the radio won't grant you access to, but is well worth a listen... or 80 listens.

Songs of choice: "Run Away with Me," "Making the Most of the Night," "Your Type," "When I Needed You," "I Didn't Just Come Here to Dance"

On 2011's Ceremonials, Florence Welch's motto was "bigger is better." Four years removed, Welch's production has been reeled in a bit in favor of letting her powerhouse vocals reign supreme on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. In an alternative rock fashion, the space underneath Welch's pipes is colored with guitars, keys, and -- Welch's new favorite instrumental weaponry, trumping the strings of her first two albums -- brass. With her wall of fictional story-telling broken, Welch now drips with dramatic introspection of a few turbulent years. And she has learned to place her voice on a leash and to allow it to work its magic only on her cue, rather than letting it roll like a freight train without breaks. It's a glorious record from start to finish, plain and simple.

Songs of choice: "What Kind of Man," "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful," "Queen of Peace," "Long & Lost," "Make Up Your Mind," "Which Witch (demo)," "Pure Feeling"

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