Best of 2015 so far...

Essential albums

If we were to sum up the first half of the year in just one word, that word would be “intense”. From the tear-stained confessionals of Sufjan and Björk to D’Angelo and Kendrick’s outpourings of politically-focused fury, our favourite albums of 2015 so far have run the gamut of human emotions. Take a deep breath and dive in below.

The Top 10

  • Blur - The Magic Whip
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    Comebacks are risky business. Worst case scenario, the artist irreparably sullies their legacy; best case scenario, they blow their previous work out of the water; most common scenario, their new material rehashes past glories and feels pallid in comparison. On their first album in 12 years, Blur have managed to avoid doing any of the above, offering a glut of fresh ideas while still delivering several knowing winks to their own back catalogue. Yes, ‘My Terracotta Heart’ could be taken from the Think Tank sessions and the jaunty ‘Lonesome Street’ wouldn’t sound out of place on 1997’s self-titled effort, but the ghostly sprawl of ‘Pyongyang’ and swampy swagger of ‘Go Out’ see the quartet exploring new territory entirely. The Magic Whip probably won’t be anybody’s favourite Blur album, but it’s a gem nonetheless.
  • Soak - Before We Forgot How To Dream
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    Though only 16 when she released her debut EP in 2014, Bridie Monds-Watson had been a firm fixture on the Derry gig circuit since the age of 14. Now a nationally-recognised talent, the Northern Irish singer-songwriter is releasing her beautifully-understated debut through Rough Trade Records. Exhibiting her multi-instrumentalist talents, the wistfully-named Before How We Forgot How To Dream sees Soak interspersing her delicate strain of indie-folk with string-laden instrumentals, laced between poignant lyrics. Long-time fans, look out for the revamped version of 'Sea Creatures', her heartfelt ode to a troubled friend.
  • Björk - Vulnicura
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    Astounding as Medúlla, Volta and Biophilia are, the more high-concept Björk’s work becomes, the further removed we listeners can feel from the human being behind the artist. Perhaps that’s why this ninth album feels especially arresting. Dealing with the disintegration of her relationship with long-term partner Matthew Barney, Vulnicura sees Björk detailing her fears and sorrows with astonishing candour, while stripping back labyrinthine layers of instrumentation to a staple palette of clipped beats, minimalist electronics and heart-tugging strings. The result is an extraordinarily brave and beautiful record, and arguably her finest full-length release since 2001's Vespertine.
  • Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly (Explicit)Contains explicit content
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    Dispelling the myth that braggadocio and solipsism are inseparable from major league rap, To Pimp A Butterfly finds Kendrick Lamar picking over personal struggles and societal injustice, to deliver an unflinching examination of what it means to be a black American in 2015. In the wake of the recent events in Ferguson and the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin (which is explicitly referenced on ‘The Blacker The Berry’), it’s no surprise that racial prejudice and police brutality loom large here. What might surprise the million-plus people who bought Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, is Lamar’s integration of esoteric musical influences to create ambitious, atypical arrangements, frequently rooted in free jazz and P-Funk. Combine these with the Compton rapper’s dexterous, deeply-inventive vocal delivery, and you have a dense yet richly-rewarding listen.
  • VILLAGERS - Darling Arithmetic
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    Where 2013’s {Awayland} saw Conor O’Brien expanding Villagers into a collaborative project, and upsizing his arrangements, this follow-up marks a return to his solo roots. Self-recorded at home in Malahide, near Dublin, Darling Arithmetic finds O’Brien favouring the intimacy of acoustic guitar and piano, and deliberately eschewing figurative language in order to deal candidly with former relationships. As both the title-track and album opener ‘Courage’ attest, the sparser the arrangements, the more devastating the listening. The fact these deeply-personal stories feel universal can only be testament to O’Brien’s skill as a songwriter.
  • D'Angelo and The Vanguard - Black Messiah
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    After a 14-year break from recording, D’Angelo finally dropped the follow-up to Voodoo in the dying days of December 2014, with zero forewarning. It was an extraordinary entrance for an album so extraordinary that we’re still digesting it. From commentary on environmental issues (‘Till It’s Done (Tutu)’) and simmering racial tensions in the USA (‘The Charade’), to songs deconstructing the cult of celebrity (‘Back To The Future (Part I)'), Black Messiah’s lyrical depth is expertly matched by its complex, jazz-infused arrangements. The result is a meticulously-realised, neo-soul tour de force, that was more than worth the decade-and-a-half wait.
  • Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
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    Speaking about his new album to Pitchfork, Sufjan Stevens stated, “This is not my art project; this is my life.” The moment ‘Death With Dignity’ ripples through the speakers, you’ve no choice but to believe him. Dealing with the loss of his mother to cancer, and picking over the details of their complex relationship, Carrie & Lowell is as personal a record as you’ll hear in 2015, and likely one of the most beautiful too. Peeling back the ornate arrangements and dense electronics of 2010’s Age Of Adz, here Stevens largely relies on fragile, acoustic guitar arpeggios and tremulous vocals to relay his grief, frustration and fear. The results are simultaneously totally spellbinding and utterly heartbreaking.
  • Jamie xx - In Colour (Explicit)Contains explicit content
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    As full-time beat-maker in The xx, Jamie Smith has long been content to lurk in the shadows behind his band-mates, while quietly pursuing personal production projects on the side. This solo debut-proper marks the moment that his musical hobby becomes a genuine limelight-stealer. Boasting both emotional depth and an impressively progressive sonic scope, In Colour seamlessly weaves a broad spectrum of styles, moods, samples and types of instrumentation into one brilliantly cohesive electronic album. From the Popcaan and Young Thug-starring ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times’ to Romy Madley-Croft co-write ‘Loud Places’, this is the soundtrack to the summer and beyond.
  • Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear (Explicit)Contains explicit content
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    Briefly Fleet Foxes’ (somewhat-apathetic) drummer, Josh Tillman returned to his solo career in 2012, rechristening himself “Father John Misty” simply because he enjoyed the bizarre juxtaposition of imagery. This irreverent approach to nomenclature gives you a fair insight into Tillman’s songwriting style too. Ranging from the string-driven, Mariachi horn-flecked Americana of ‘Chateau Lobby #4’ to the Harry Nilsson-style piano balladry of ‘Bored In The USA’, this latest collection excels in its pairing of absurdly beautiful melodies with hilariously deadpan lyrics. The result is a record that feels reassuringly “classic” and thrillingly original at the same time.
  • Leon Bridges - Coming Home
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    Though born in the same year as Taylor Swift, 25-year-old Texan Leon Bridges could almost have been beamed in from a bygone era. Kitted out in sharp-tailoring and exuding old-fashioned, matinee idol charm, the former gospel singer effortlessly distills all the smooth soulfulness of Sam Cooke and Ben E King into his misty-eyed melodies. There’s some seriously strong songwriting on display here too, and the tracks are beautifully arranged, flecked with Hammond organ and punctuated by swing beats and the warm rumble of double bass. The result is a debut deferential enough to make rhythm and blues aficionados nostalgic, but with enough originality and verve to entice younger fans.

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