Best Albums of 2015

Graham LeBron
02 20, 2016

I encountered plenty of albums released in 2015, more than any year ever I'm certain, and I was flat out amazed at the variety and quality. Anyone who says music is dying isn't looking and listening hard enough. 

So, as I enjoyed listening while at home, traveling, or during the hundreds of times I DJed last year, these are the ones that bubbled to the top. 

I'm surprised at what this list ended up looking like. There were records I thought for sure would stick with me that ended up staying on the shelves after a few initial spins, and others that took a minute for me to realize they had been in semi-constant rotation for months. It was a great year to be alive and actively listening to new music. Some amazing albums came out this year -- challenging, groundbreaking pieces of work that will most likely go down as milestones in the history of recorded music.  I'm sure not going to try to wax poetic about all those here. Instead, from a more personal perspective, here are the albums that stayed closest to me over the past 12 months. Most of these artists are folks I have already been writing about, but there are a few welcome new additions too. This is not a comprehensive list of everything I loved last year by any means, just a nice snapshot of my year in music. Enjoy.

Isaac Vallentin "Hedera" Moment Bienheureux

This is my favorite album of the year. I knew it within the first few listens back in June when Isaac wrote to Drops of Gold to tell me about the release of his debut album.

I'll admit that no one else I shared this with seemed to get quite as excited about it as me, and that is fine. I believe I'm ahead of the curve on this one. I know it is great, because it moved me, and it continues to do so.

I wrote at length about it this summer here, so that should give you a fair example of why I care for it so much. In summation, it is an intriguing blend of melancholy and joy, analog and digital, folk and electronic, light and dark. dirty and pristine. The juxtapositions create a sound that's exciting and fresh with each listen. I feel like I still notice new intricacies as the record grows on me.

I am greatly pleased that Isaac and I have become pen pals after that initial correspondence. And even more pleased to know he is currently working on a new album. From our conversations, I am hopeful there will be future collaborations. Stay tuned for a Golden Gram remix too. Oh, and he is also great in a live setting.

Key Tracks: Cloud of Smoke, Stewardess, Selena

Leon Bridges "Coming Home" Columbia Records

Coming Home is as perfect a soul record as I can imagine. This is even more impressive considering it was recorded quickly in August of 2014, at Niles City Sound in Fort Worth, TX to be released by Columbia Records in June of 2015. The voice and songwriting prowess of this 26 year old Texan, who has only been writing songs for about 4 years now, are astounding. He sounds wise beyond his years, and authentic as all get out. And that is coming from someone that is particularly sensitive to artists trying to reclaim the glory of genres past with retro gear and clothing. That is far from the case here.

I was first turned on to him this summer shortly after the album was released, but it took me seeing him live on SNL last December for me to really flip out and realize the true greatness. It was kind of random actually, because I was only watching the episode because of a skit recommended to me and it was funny enough that I decided to keep watching. I am so glad I did, because as soon as that weeks' musical guest and his band kicked into "Smooth Sailing," I was hooked.  The band has some serious chops as well, featuring members of White Denim, who also happen to be the operators of the aforementioned Niles City Sound. Man, is this good. I can't wait to see what's next for he and his crew.

Key Tracks: Better Man, Smooth Sailing, Lisa Sawyer

Tame Impala "Currents" Interscope Records

I knew this album would be great from the first single released, "Let It Happen.Each successive song I heard only reaffirmed that belief. I wrote about Tame Impala a fair amount last year and, as I expected, it is one of the few LPs that stayed in my main DJ crate all year. It is still in there now. It works in almost every situation. I'm still in awe of the fact that Kevin Parker wrote, recorded, and mixed this thing by himself. And that it was done at home with a very minimal amount of gear. So, for as homey and retro as that sounds, I feel like it is actually what makes this record more modern than anything. If you have the talent and the patience, you can create your own masterpiece. It isn't necessarily about the technology or the money, it is about the art. He created something great for himself and the people loved it. It has definitely inspired me to push myself creatively. And that is what a great record is all about.

Key Tracks: Let It Happen, I'm A Man, The Less I Know The Better

Vetiver "Complete Strangers" Easy Sound Recordings

I wrote about Andy Cabic and Vetiver a good bit last year as well. I appreciate that he takes his time between albums to find inspiration and establish a vibe for a set of songs before entering the studio. I think you have to keep living life and be open to new experience to be able to have anything new to offer creatively. I suppose some folks gain experiences more quickly than others, but in Andy's case, I'm always happy to wait. Quality over quantity.

As with previous albums, once he felt the calling, he headed down to LA to work with long time collaborator, Thom Monahan. The result is a perfect addition to the Vetiver canon. I'm especially pleased by the more groove driven tracks here, like Stranger Still, Current Carry and Backwards Slowly. Time Flies By floats beautifully on a bed of bossa nova influenced drum machine, Mellotron, and acoustic guitars. The more prominent keys and synths are also a plus for me. Is it possible some of this new instrumentation is due to the fact that he's been more influenced by the kind of stuff he's been playing when DJing lately? Either way, the results are highly rewarding and it makes for a perfect listening experience.

Key Tracks: Stranger Still, Current Carry, Loose Ends

Jamie XX "In Colour" Young Turks

This album came out of nowhere for me. I'm not too familiar with his band, The XX, and when I heard the first single, I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times), it wasn't exactly up my alley, but after reading a bunch of great reviews I started listening and fell under the spell. It started with the opener, Gosh, which got me nostalgic for one of my favorite dance tracks of all time, the slow building groove, Belfast, by English dance pioneers, Orbital. This is definitely a dance record, but not necessarily your standard dance floor one. The electronic tones and beats are there, along with carefully curated vocal samples, but there is something significantly different going on to my ears.

"In Colour" hints at the epic-ness of dance music without getting caught up in the cliches of what has become mainstream EDM. The rhythms are different, the builds are slower, less predictable, and more emotional. I listen to this on long drives or when I'm feeling mellow. It takes you through moods and makes you pay attention. It isn't the kind of instrumental electronic record you put on and forget about. Very often it compels me to rewind and listen again to something I didn't notice before or to figure out how the heck he came up with it. He clearly spent some time contemplating the sequence of tracks to create an easy flow as the album unfolds. There are recurring sounds (I love the steel drums) and motifs here as well, all tastefully executed. It's what makes this a great album instead of a collection of dance tracks for DJs to spin. It is also interesting to note how simple it is. On most tracks, there are very few things going on, it sounds punk to me in that way. Just another part of this record's appeal, as it sits among its modern electronic music peers, but still beside them somehow.

Key Tracks: Gosh, Sleep Sound, Obvs

Four Tet "Morning/Evening" Text Records

Four Tet's latest album is just 2 album side length tracks, Morning and Evening. Fabulous. I've listened to this record so many times since I got it. Super ambient and minimal in places and hyper rhythmic in others, intensely melodic throughout. I just love it. Both sides are great, but I am especially drawn to the Morning side. I when I play it on a sunny afternoon in the beer garden at Lost & Found during my GRDN Gold DJ sessions, someone always comes up and asks what it is. So calm and comforting. I was intrigued by the woman singing on it, so I asked the internet, and Wikipedia told me this:

Keiran Hebden, the man behind the music, is of Indian descent. Apparently, he acquired a collection of Hindu devotional music from his late grandfather when he was ten years old but had never listened to it. When his maternal grandmother died during the making of his 2013 album Beautiful Rewind, Hebden played some of the records he had inherited and began experimenting with sampling Indian playback singer Lata Mangeshkar's voice, looping a sample for three days before deciding to base an album around it.

So, there you go.

Key Tracks: Morning, Evening

the bird and the bee "Recreational Love" Rostrum Records

This album features one of my favorite songs of the year, "Will You Dance?" I wrote about it back in August here. It stayed in my head for a good portion of the summer, and it has stayed in my main DJ crate since its release.

Filled with thoughtful yet playful pop numbers sung beautifully by Inara George and produced immaculately by producer extraordinaire, Greg Kurstin, this album has had more staying power in my brain than I would have imagined an LP full of dance tunes could. That's because the unbeatable combination of great performances, stellar songwriting, and creative production techniques can push a record into your subconscious without you even realizing. Nice work, you two. Maybe it won't be 5 more years before there is another album. Though I kind of doubt that, given the amount of pots Mr. Kurstin has had his hand in as of late (Adele, Beck, Carly Rae Jepsen).

Key Tracks: Will You Dance?Recreational LoveWe're Coming To You

Mild High Club "Timeline" Circle Star Records

Mild High Club were one my favorite acts to see live in 2015. I was already a fan, but there performance at Hickey Fest last June blew me away. Somehow tight and shambolic at the same time, they translated the songs from their debut LP brilliantly. I wrote more about the album here, so I won't go into detail again. I'll just say go see them if you have the chance and keep an eye out for these folks.

Key Tracks: Windowpane, Undeniable, Rollercoaster Baby

Daniel T. "Tetrachromat" Young Adults

I just can't get enough of this record. Daniel T. is one half of LA dance music creators/remixers Cosmic Kids. I honestly don't even know where I discovered it at this point, but here is what I had to say about it back in October:

Tetrachromat is released by Los Angeles label, Young Adults, self proclaimed purveyors of future body musics: grow house, sultry sleaze, deep lurk, sunsoaked slowburn and deviant disco. This is right up my alley -- the kind of tracks I like to make and play in the Lost & Found beer garden on Sunday afternoons at GRDN Gold. I would even call it West Coast disco or afternoon disco as Poolside is fond of calling their music. This seems to be a trend over the last few years with groups like Sorcerer, The Beat Broker, Windsurf, Hatchback, and Yalls turning out slow burning pseudo disco tunes for warm summer days and nights. I'm hooked. There is even a great cover of "Boy" by 80s synth pop group, Book of Love. Sweet. The video for Planetesimal is also great, I love this song.

Well, since then, I've probably played it at every GRDN Gold, if not multiple tracks, and at most any other occasion where I can get away with playing electronic music. There isn't a song on this record that I don't spin. I'm not sure what makes this album so special, but I have a feeling it is the, well, feeling. It just feels so good! The beats are deceptively simple and moving and the bouncing synths and arpeggios just make me want to get things going. It builds and it grooves and it cheers me up to no end. And that is what makes a great record in my book.

Key Tracks: Mission Hill Morning, Planetesimal, The Sun & The Sky

Widowspeak "All Yours" Captured Tracks

All Yours is the 3rd album from New York duo, Widowspeak. I included my favorite track, Narrows, on the December mix, and now that I have spent some time with the album, I'll tell you why it deserves a place here. Though it is 10 songs and 44 minutes, I still generally put this one on again when it reaches the end. It takes me to a nostalgic place that I don't want to leave. I hear echoes of Cowboy Junkies, Mazzy Star, The Sundays, the pastoral Chapel Hill group, Kingsbury Manx, and even Mary Timony's old group, Helium. There is a languidness to the writing -- even when the tempos come up on tracks like Dead Love (So Still) and Borrowed World, there is a calming effect which I can only assume comes from the enchanting voices of singer/guitarists Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas. The guitars chime and bounce against each other, reminding me of the 90s indie rock I used to be so fond of, even hinting at the majesty of one of my all time faves, BEDHEAD. And if I'm being really honest, it reminds me of one my first bands back when I lived in Houston called schrasj. The tight production and restraint of the rhythm section (courtesy of Woods) allows those chiming guitars and ethereal vocals to float so effortlessly over the whole thing. It is familiar and new at the same time and I want more. And again, that is another sign of a great record.

Key Tracks: All Yours, Narrows, Borrowed World

Waterstrider "Nowhere Now"

I wrote about this Oakland group a few times this year (1, 2, 3 times actually). So you may recall I was thrilled when they finally dropped their first full length last April. In my mind, Nowhere Now is the culmination of a band honing its talents through years of practicing and performing. It sounds like they've taken the time to learn each members' strengths and then weaved them together over time into a taut, tugging rhythmic animal. I want to use the word lithe. That is what it sounds like to me.  The guitars snarl and intertwine as the multi headed hydra of a rhythm section undulates seductively underneath. Add Nate Salman's dark angel vocals to the mix and the listener is drawn ever deeper into the cave. The next thing you know, you cannot escape. I expect great things from this band. They get better every time I see them, which is as often as I can.

Key Tracks: White Light, Redwood, Calliope

C Duncan "Architect" FatCat Records

I've been adding C Duncan's songs to my mixes since I first heard "For" back in March. I waited patiently as single after single was released until finally, in July, he released his debut full length, Architect. It was everything I hoped for, continuing down the path he started with his penchant for classically inspired choral harmonies, pensive lyrics, and precisely textured rhythms. It turns out Christopher Duncan is a young Scottish musician and composer (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) whose parents are both classical musicians. My music school brain picks up on baroque flourishes poking through the minimalism -- a sound utterly modern to my tired ears. I can relate to this.

As he studied in the classical tradition, he was also playing in bands and learning the rock instruments, which is readily evident in the unique hybrid of classical and modern styles he has created. There is a halo that seems to hang over these tracks, and I think that is what makes this special for me. The songs are intimate while still filling a huge sonic space. I feel like he is whispering just to me, but it comes through loud and clear to all. There is definitely something timeless about it. He recorded the album on his own in his bedroom studio in Glasgow, one lush layer at a time. Another example of technology enabling those with the talent and vision to achieve their dreams. Oh, and this Renaissance man is also an accomplished painter, so of course the cover art is his as well. 

Key Tracks: Say, For, Here To There

Ryley Walker "Primrose Green" Dead Oceans

Here's another young one making music beyond his years. I wrote about his breakthrough album back when he was scheduled to play Huichica, where he absolutely killed both times I saw him. Simply mesmerizing, and that was just him and his acoustic guitar. I only wish that I could have seen him with the full band. At least I have something to look forward to some day.

Key Tracks: Primrose Green, On The Banks Of The Old Kishwaukee, The High Road

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