Sunday, January 3, 2016

Top Albums of 2015

Another year of great music has passed, and 2015 was a banner year for this consummate mélomane. My annual year-end list of favorite albums (15 for '15) is once again dominated by women, but three solo male artists, one band, and even a "various artists" compilation crept in this year. So, without further delay, following is my list of the best albums of 2015 in descending order from #15 to my #1 pick (which will be a surprise to no one).

#15 – Various Artists / 80’S RE:COVERED

Ok, I’ll admit it. This one’s an odd choice to kick off my annual list of favorite albums. A compilation album…of covers…by 80’s artists? But, yes, it’s just that good. If names like Curiosity Killed the Cat, or Johnny Hates Jazz, or ABC, or Go West, or Wang Chung bring back great memories of zipper shirts and parachute pants and binge-watching MTV (like, when the network used to play music videos 24/7), then this album is your nostalgic wet dream come true. The concept is simple: 80’s artists—with their original production teams—covering their favorite songs from any other era…in their distinctive 80’s style. Fun, huh? Oh, it’s lots of fun to hear Samantha Fox take on Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” or Heaven 17’s version of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” or Kim Wilde’s take on The Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”. It’s a glorious throwback and contemporary treat at the same time to hear Belinda Carlisle cover Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” and Kim Carnes take on The Rolling Stones classic “Under My Thumb”, while Go West goes modern with its take on The Killers’ “Human” and ABC covers Radiohead’s “High & Dry”. Making this albums of covers even more eighties-tastic is that following the dozen newly-recorded covers are twelve remixes of the same songs!

80’S RE:COVERED is, like, totally tubular…to the max! Pop it in your Walkman and listen to it while you work on your Rubik’s Cube.

#14 – Hurts / SURRENDER

Three albums in and you’ve likely never heard of English synthpop duo Hurts – and that’s a shame. Despite the fact that singer Theo Hutchcraft and synthesist Adam Anderson had top ten success with their first two albums – HAPPINESS and EXILE – in their native United Kingdom (as well as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and Finland), the duo’s closest thing to a US connection was a gig supporting Scissor Sisters on their UK arena tour in late 2010. On their third album, SURRENDER, Hutchcraft and Anderson craft a set of hooky and infectious pop songs with a distinctive, synthetic orchestra sound. The result is a euphoric collection that calls to mind the highly-stylized aesthetic of 80s artists like Johnny Hates Jazz, Go West, and – on slower moments – Swing Out Sister. 

#13 – Kelly Clarkson / PIECE BY PIECE

Terrible cover notwithstanding, Kelly Clarkson's PIECE BY PIECE is a first-rate pop-rock collection and solid addition to her growing catalog. While highlights for me include the decidedly 80's retro vibe of "Nostalgic" and "Good Goes the Bye", the sassy soul of "Bad Reputation", and the Sia-penned bombast of "Invincible", the standout here is "Run Run Run" with John Legend. On the first half of the latter, the production is stripped way down with Clarkson's award-winning pipes taking center stage accompanied only by Legend on piano, reminding us of why she was able to rise above her televised singing competition roots to the rank of a true artist.

#12 – Adam Lambert / THE ORIGINAL HIGH

The one-time AMERICAN IDOL runner-up continues his career winning streak with this third album, his first under the Warner Bros Records banner after parting ways with original label RCA (reportedly over creative differences after Lambert balked at the label’s insistence on him recording an album of 80’s covers). Longtime fans will relish the glam-rock theatrics and booming vocals that remain intact here, while appreciating that the extravagance and excess of previous efforts have been markedly toned down in the capable hands of Swedish producers Max Martin and Shellback. On the sets softer moments, Lambert croons longingly about sex, drugs, and James Dean, suggesting that he’s capable of slipping on the same hazy Hollywood summer-tinted sunglasses as Lana Del Rey. But, ultimately, Lambert is a house diva at heart – and his producers know it judging from the throbbing basslines of standouts like “Evil in the Night”, “The Light”, and the title track. The album’s best – and most unexpectedly satisfying – moments come when he blends his penchant for carrying a rhythmic thumper with some restrained sultriness, as evidenced on “Underground” and the deluxe edition bonus track “After Hours”.

 #11 – Madonna / REBEL HEART

Madonna proved (once again) that rumors of her cultural irrelevance were grossly exaggerated with her (lucky) thirteenth studio album. Using “Living For Love” as the bridge to leave the cold EDM sound of the HARD CANDY and MDNA era behind, the music icon wisely grounded REBEL HEART in a decidedly more pop-oriented landscape and the results are nothing short of dazzling. There’s a surprising delicacy at play here reminiscent of her softer BEDTIME STORIES days on tracks like “HeartBreakCity”, “Joan of Arc”, and the stunning “Ghosttown” (easily her best track in a decade).  The album seems divided thematically between Madonna’s softer and more rebellious sides and the stark juxtaposition works surprisingly well despite all the hands in the production pot here. Framed by simple folk guitars and churchy piano strains, the melodious “heart” tracks contrast sharply with the contemporary electro grooves of “rebel” tracks like “Best Night”, “Holy Water”, and “Inside Out”. Mixed in for good measure—and harkening back even further into the Madonna catalog—are the bubblegum levity of “Body Shop” and the reggae beat of the No Doubt-ish “Unapologetic Bitch”. The title track is the most revelatory—and possibly most authentically biographical—glimpse into the real Madonna we’ve ever had, with her singing clearly and confidently with unabashed nostalgia about the price she’s paid for her non-conformity.

A few missteps like groaners “Bitch I’m Madonna” and the unlistenable “Illuminati” kept this one just shy of my year-end Top-Ten but it’s in no way a snub. With REBEL HEART, Madonna proves that she’s a pop artisan of the highest caliber who delivers her most satisfying music when she focuses on structured pop arrangements. She seems to have finally learned that her continued relevancy will come from remaining true to her genuine artistic self instead of importing trendy chart styles from hot production teams.

#10 – Grace Potter / MIDNIGHT

Relegating bandmates The Nocturnals to the sidelines for her first solo outing, Grace Potter impresses with this slick pop-rock collection. Having proven herself as the dynamic lead singer of the aforementioned rock-soul outfit, Potter belts and struts with gleeful abandon on this terrifically fun set of smart, rhythmic AOR confections. Wisely, producer Eric (Queens of the Stone Age) Valentine keeps Potter's powerhouse vocals central against the musically eclectic palette he creates for her. Even amidst the overblown propulsive percussion and New Wave funk, Potter still manages to howl and growl with a gritty rawness that should keep fans of the Americana authenticity of her work with The Nocturnals happy. While highlights include “Hot to the Touch”, “Alive Tonight”, and “Delirious”, the standout track here is the uber-funky “Your Girl”.

#9 – Jess Glynne / I CRY WHEN I LAUGH

You’ve likely first heard this English powerhouse fronting Clean Bandit’s international hit “Rather Be” (included here for good measure) last year and—if justice prevails—you’ll be hearing a lot more of her in the coming year. Stepping out into her own with this relentlessly uplifting debut, Jess Glynne seems poised for stardom with this piano-centered collection of musical optimism. There’s a decidedly happy, gospel-like feel throughout I CRY WHEN I LAUGH with tambourine-shaking, hand-clapping, and backing choirs packed into each song, most of which fall thematically into the idea of one’s inner strength overcoming tribulation. Glynne’s husky alto is nicely contrasted against the effervescent disco strings and jaunty piano riffs on the majority of the songs, while the Adele comparisons are inevitable on the slower tracks like “Take Me Home” and the acoustic “My Love”. Standouts include the ebullient “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself”, bouncy “Hold My Hand”, house-thumping “You Can Find Me”, and the so-sappy-but-somehow-it-works ballad “Saddest Vanilla”, in which she and duet partner Emeli Sandé play two women whose hearts get broken in an ice cream parlor.

# 8 – Rob Thomas / THE GREAT UNKNOWN

The consummate pop-rock craftsman returns with a third solo outing and he comes bringing hooks aplenty. From swelling, insistent anthems to contemplative power ballads, Thomas delivers a cohesive set of toe-tapping, head-bobbing AOR guaranteed to have you singing all the way to work and back again. Thomas excels at that middle-of-the-road classic pop formula, from the catchy hooks to the universal lyrics, all wrapped up in a slick and well-polished production. It’s ear candy through and through, with a sincerity and familiarity that’s the equivalent of musical comfort food. And no one does it better than Thomas, his vocals always strong and clear, emoting and emphasizing on all the right notes. Highlights from THE GREAT UNKNOWN include his gorgeous duet with new vocalist Rooty on “Paper Dolls”, the disco pulse of "Things You Said", the electronic horn stabs of “Absence of Affection”, and the jaunty midtempo rocker “Not Like You Told Me”.

#7 – Lana Del Rey / HONEYMOON

Wistful catatonia reigns supreme on Lana Del Rey’s sublime third album. This first-rate set remains awash in the moody musical equivalent of film noir that captured fans’ hearts on the songstress’s first two efforts, with tortured lyrics, melancholy string arrangements, and Del Rey’s now-trademark slurred vocals ably setting a mood of faded glamour and unhappy Hollywood endings. Gorgeously languorous, HONEYMOON seemingly combines the worlds of Del Rey’s BORN TO DIE and ULTRAVIOLENCE to create a hybrid world where the musically murky soundscape is best heard through a dreamy, auditory gauze. Whether she’s reciting a specifically abstract passage from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton” over a sparse, science fiction-like score during the interlude to “Religion” or covering Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to avant-garde perfection, Del Rey is taking chances here on HONEYMOON unseen on earlier efforts. That those musical gambles are so subtle as to be easily missed by the casual fan is what makes them feel like rewards for our loyalty to the hardcore fatalist femme fatale. An excruciatingly exquisite addition to the gloomy chanteuse’s growing songbook. Highlights include: “Music To Watch Boys To”, “High By the Beach”, “Freak”, and “24”.

#6 – Jimmy Somerville / HOMAGE

Somerville has never sounded better vocally or more in his element musically than he does on HOMAGE, an unabashedly ebullient collection of pure old school disco goodness that feels completely authentic but never outdated. Worth digging out the bell bottoms and platform shoes for such highlights as "Back to Me", "Lights Are Shining", and "This Hand". Easily gives Jess Glynne’s I CRY WHEN I LAUGH a run for the most shamelessly happy album of 2015.

#5 – Seinabo Sey / PRETEND

If Mary J. Blige and 80’s Brit-soul ensemble Soul-2-Soul had a lovechild, her name would be Seinabo Sey. PRETEND is a genre-defying debut, an enticing fusion of transatlantic pop, soul, and EDM that reflects the singer’s Swedish and Gambian heritage. Drawing from her dual musical roots (her late father was the renowned Gambian musician Maudo Sey), the 25-year-old singer and songwriter creates an evocative sound that’s wholly and uniquely her own—no small feat in the crowded and highly imitative pop landscape of today. Combining deeply introspective lyrics with ambitious, pop-friendly arrangements (courtesy of Magnus Lidehäll, who’s done work with Madonna, Kylie Minogue, and Britney Spears), PRETEND is an eclectic collection drawing from a grab-bag of influences and adorned with trip-hop beats, EDM and Afropop flourishes, and ghostly choruses. It’s simultaneously soulfully accessible and dramatically boundary-pushing. Sey retains marvelous control of whatever musical background she’s placed up against, demonstrating an enviable versatility and ease singing everything from stomping gospel-tinged anthems to sweeping piano ballads alike. This album (and artist) are true discoveries meant to be savored in their entirety. Highlights for me include the poetically soaring “Burial”, Sey’s musical response to the death of her father in 2013, the percolating title track with its killer bass-like synthesizer punches, “Poetic”, the somber “Sorry”, and the dizzying musical frenzy of “Words”. Oh, hell…they’re all standouts. Devour this one whole.

#4 – Andra Day / CHEERS TO THE FALL

Looks like we’ve found the missing link between Adele and Amy Winehouse in this 30-year-old San Diego native and one-time Stevie Wonder discovery. On her sterling debut, CHEERS TO THE FALL, Day’s jazz-trained vocals wrap effortlessly around soulful pop melodies and the result is downright intoxicating. Although the effect is akin to being transported back to a smoky, 1950’s cabaret with the raspy-voiced, pompadour-coiffed Day wearing her influences – namely, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Etta James – proudly, her sound is awash in nostalgia without ever feeling dated. NPR’s Katie Presley aptly characterizes the juxtaposition: “[Day] cultivates an aesthetic with clear reference points in the past, but she tells stories firmly rooted in her present. It's a jarring and compelling combination.”

Indeed it is. This is the one debut of 2015 that must not be missed.

#3 – Brandon Flowers / THE DESIRED EFFECT

The Killers’ frontman once again proves he may have come to musical prominence in the wrong decade, wearing his 80’s influences proudly on his artistic sleeve on this second solo album. THE DESIRED EFFECT is a masterclass in that era’s wonky production artifices and lyrical heavy-handedness – and it suits Flowers to perfection. Most impressive, for all the album’s chugging piano lines, orchestra hits, hand-clap snares, and New Wave synth-disco flourishes – all musically equated with the signature sound of a past decade – Flowers and producer Ariel (Haim, Charli XCX) Rechtshaid make it sound contemporarily relevant and authentic. Lyrically, Flowers is still all Springsteen-esque wanderlust, shift work, open highways, and small-town imprisonment, a theme hammered home when he generously samples Bronski Beat’s classic SMALLTOWN BOY (which, if it didn’t sound 80s enough, includes a brief spoken-word cameo by Neil Tenant of Pet Shop Boys) on the standout track “I Can Change”. THE DESIRED EFFECT is lyrical earnestness intersecting with production grandiosity, and the result is an entirely organic sound in which the charismatic, eternally-optimistic Flowers has never sounded more in his element. Highlights: “Can’t Deny My Love”, “Lonely Town”, and the rollicking “Diggin’ Up the Heart”.

#2 – Melanie Martinez / CRY BABY

Generally not a fan of the concept album, but Long Island native Melanie Martinez's brilliant CRY BABY is an easy exception. Loaded with childhood metaphors and similes, this bitingly insightful, surrealistic musical fairy tale plays like a maniacally macabre children's storybook. Martinez is a mesmerizing blend of Lana Del Rey and Lorde, and her debut collection of songs set against a pastel-Goth backdrop of growing up amidst familial turmoil makes it one of the best alt-pop bows in recent memory. Musical incisors for the brain. Color me officially infatuated with Ms. Martinez.

#1 – Adele / 25

Adele’s career pause may have seemed interminable but as her much-anticipated new album proved, good things come to those who wait…and wait. And then wait some more. Luckily, the intervening years between her juggernaut 21 and the new (juggernaut-ier) 25 have been kind to Adele. Her magnificent voice actually improved following that nail-biting laser microsurgery on her throat in 2011, adding four additional notes to the top of her mezzo-soprano vocal range. On 25, she cements her reputation as a musical old soul, with songwriting and vocals that belie her age (now 27). All the pathos that defined 21 remains intact with plenty of nostalgic piano-bar ruminations to accompany almost anyone’s future break-up or life’s regret. While the smash “Hello” has already inspired countless cover versions, among the album’s other highlights are the jubilantly syncopated gallop of “Water Under the Bridge” and the soulful Danger Mouse collaboration “River Lea”. Adele remains one of the few contemporary vocalists whose voice can elicit actual emotion from recipient ears, as future tear-jerking classics like “When We Were Young” or “Million Years Ago” or “All I Ask” prove. Welcome back, Adele. We’ll likely be celebrating your return through 2016 and beyond.