Culturedarm’s Thirty-Five Best Albums of 2015

Bjork Vulnicura 3

35. Drake – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late  |  34. Peaches – Rub  |  33. Young Thug – Barter 6  |  32. Jeremih – Late Nights: The Album  |  31. Ian William Craig – Cradle for the Wanting  |  30. Dr. Dre – Compton  |  29. Zhala – Zhala  |  28. Future – DS2  |  27. Laurel Halo – In Situ  |  26. Kamasi Washington – The Epic  |  25. Nicole Dollanganger – Natural Born Losers  |  24. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06  |  23. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – A Year With 13 Moons  |  22. Jlin – Dark Energy  |  21. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell  |  20. Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside  |  19. Kelela – Hallucinogen  |  18. Arca – Mutant  |  17. Majical Cloudz – Are You Alone?  |  16. Helen – The Original Faces  |  15. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp  |  14. Prurient – Frozen Niagara Falls  |  13. Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper  |  12. Holly Herndon – Platform  |  11. Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique – Love Is Free

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10. A$AP Rocky – At.Long.Last.A$AP

On At.Long.Last.A$AP Rocky wraps a darker psychology around his gleaming stylistic core. The album echoes with Rocky’s increasingly uncertain relationship with fame and the street zeitgeist he helped create, dives deeply into the psychedelic, and is scarred by some of the tumult of his personal life, the calling off of his engagement with Chanel Iman, but more the death of A$AP Yams last January. This is a long and hazy record, and Rocky lingers for much of it enticingly out of reach, but despite what may seem like the odd crude or boastful lyric, he never grandstands: always ready to subsume his own voice for the music, on an album which features standout verses from Future, M.I.A., Kanye West, and Mos Def , Rocky remains unparalleled for sheer artistic sensibility.

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9. Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee

After the first two chapters in the Coin Coin series saw her leading variously-sized bands, on River Run Thee Matana Roberts channels her lone voice through layers of historical narrative, the poetry of her grandfather and diaries kept at sea merging with documents of slavery and a recording of Malcolm X. Her utterances loop over a background of conversational chatter, field recordings, and old standards, whose melodies twist and twine against wailing saxophone and buzzing electronic beeps and drones, on an album which starts and finishes in one piece. In the process Roberts conjures up the old American South, recultivating its landscape for the present.

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8. Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, girl

Whether enacting and envisioning flickering gender transformations or observing more passively, rapt on the platform of a big city subway, standing at the back of church in a small Norwegian town, or lying in bed with one hand on her cunt and the other clutching a dick placidly soft, Jenny Hval sparks the consciousness, writing self-revelatory music in a conversational tone with a political edge. For their candid language and sudden insights, some of the lyrics on Apocalypse, girl are enough to laugh out loud. Hval whispers in spoken-word paragraphs that soar into pristine moments of song, over a superficially skeletal accompaniment that withholds a wealth of bubbling detail, new age and barrel organ melodies, cello, harp, bass, and Mellotron interspersing with stretches of electronic noise.

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7. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf

A collaboration in the grandest sense – sold on the name of Chance The Rapper, only the extraordinarily generous Chance releases all of his stuff for free; introducing the world to the elegant and dexterous playing of Donnie Trumpet; but equally highlighting the other members of The Social Experiment, Peter Cottontale as the musical director, Nate Fox on keys, and Greg Landfair Jr. on drums, alongside a host of featuring artists from Big Sean and Busta Rhymes to Janelle Monáe and Noname Gypsy – Surf was the soundtrack to a blissful summer, endlessly verdant live variations on rap, jazz fusion, gospel, and soul.

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6. Grimes – Art Angels

First appearances can be suggestive, but they rarely tell the full story of a work of art: Visions too tended to blur in the middle across early listens, with ‘Infinite ♥ Without Fulfillment’, ‘Genesis’, ‘Oblivion’, and ‘Symphonia IX’ providing the hooks, and it is a similar thing on Art Angels with ‘Laughing and Not Being Normal’, ‘California’, ‘Flesh without Blood’, and ‘World Princess Part II’. But Art Angels soon emerges not only as Grimes’ most conscientious album to date, but as her most strident and upbeat, retaining her otherworldly atmospheres and idiosyncratic song structures, still eminently danceable, all while charting a new course through twanging guitar country, lush neo soul, and shimmering punk pop.

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5. Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete

Where R Plus Seven played as skewed vignettes of modern America, bleak and and breaking, slightly wistful, but still bearing shards of hope, Garden of Delete – the title a play on Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych as well as God – is the most intimate thing in Daniel Lopatin’s catalogue. Grungier, scuzzier, regenerating a varied array of adolescent influences, the record captures a particularly ferocious form of teenage angst, but there are also moments of wry or guffawing awareness, and those that depict the graceful coming together of self.

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4. Joanna Newsom – Divers

While the referential bravura of ‘Sapokanikan’ shaped many interpretations of the album – allusions and quotations from the Lenape to John Purroy Mitchel, from Shelley to Van Gogh, coming together in a tender waltz that relays the foundations of New York City even as we walk – the broader concerns of Divers are universal, meditations on time and space and the nature of art, which cohere into an act of defiance in the face of onrushing death. Joanna Newsom’s most singular and circular cycle of songs can be at once harrowing and packed with luscious instrumentation, featuring her trusty harp alongside trombones, violins, double bass, clarinet, and celesta, the Mellotron, Wurlitzer, and clavichord, Ryan Francesconi’s bouzouki and baglama, and Judith Linsenberg’s recorder.

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3. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

From the funk groove that underlies ‘King Kunta’ and the soulful shuffle of ‘Institutionalized’, to the convulsed delivery on ‘u’ and the wobbling synth loop and high-pitched throwbacks of ‘Hood Politics’ – punctuated throughout by the dexterous and doleful notes of free jazz – To Pimp a Butterfly exchanges the cinematic narrative of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City for something like a mural or tapestry, withholding the scene until the weaving of the final revelatory threads. Across dense passages of music Kendrick discusses the twin traps of fame and consumer capitalism, embarking on a journey of self discovery by means of a trip to Africa and a dialogue with Tupac, demanding to understand and convey what it means to be in 2015 and alive and black.

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2. Julia Holter – To Have You in My Wilderness

A collection of songs without the conceptual underpinnings of her earlier works, on To Have You in My Wilderness Julia Holter shifts between salty coastal and sultry urban settings, offering listeners a restless embrace. The palette is effortlessly varied, by turns jazzy, country, and baroque, and keys, strings, synths, and vocals swoop and swirl in often startling juxtapositions, but the record is still characterised by a graceful restraint: these are songs that lilt and teeter on the edge of love, balancing finely between the rush of freedom and the hold of romance. To Have You in My Wilderness is Holter at once at her most approachable and most breathtakingly daring.

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1. Björk – Vulnicura

Björk has never been afraid of unravelling herself through song, but especially after the relative outgoingness of Volta and Biophilia, this was a startling and shatteringly poignant act of self exposition. From the first line Vulnicura throws ‘a juxtapositioning fate’ into sharp relief, recording in descriptive fragments the deterioration of a long-term relationship, with drawn out vocals and a soundscape of spare isolation – the result of Björk’s string arrangements and throbbing production aided by Arca and, on ‘Family’, The Haxan Cloak – which at the same time seems to fold back and filter through the full extent of Björk’s career. The feelings and the memories of love and loss linger and return in blazing bursts, but at their core stands the persevering self, which takes its ultimate form in the reverberating close to ‘Black Lake’.