The Best Albums of 2015

Music, to me, is an amazing auditory experience that—like the colors and textures in landscapes that can be seen and touched—paints soundscapes in your head. Unlike books that tell stories in white paper and black print, music orchestrates a world of sound and invisible color sharing frequencies that are not seen with the eyes—but felt and experienced with something deeper.

When I studied music industry in undergrad, one of my professors told me about this anechoic chamber that was built to construct a place without any sound. They invited experts to come see this place and experience a soundless world, but what they attempted to do could not be achieved. Besides their hearts beating, those invited could still hear something: a low murmuring swish. The sound heard in this nearly silent chamber was the sound of blood rushing through their veins. The point of the true story is to demonstrate that sound is life. Death is silence. And music—music is the beautiful arrangement of various sounds, tones and timbers that create a symphony of magic.

For the last few years, I’ve been sharing a list of my favorite albums of the year. Every year, the list compiles the 10 albums that have stood out—no matter their release date—and are listed in the order I encountered them in the year, rather than an attempt to rank them. Without further ado, these are the best albums of 2015:

ODESZA – Summer’s Gone & In Return (2013 & 2014)7b5dc5e1cc6756895c2a8800b7d7f4c8.1000x1000x1If this year was great, it’s because I discovered ODESZA. If music is magic, the Seattle guys that make up this electronic duo are two talented magicians.

From the very first “Intro” track of their debut album, Summer’s Gone, the beauty of electronic music is captured in 30 seconds: the ability to create sounds that no one has ever heard before. Through technology, ODESZA has invented cosmic soundscapes and other worldly sounds that I haven’t quite encountered before. And I listen to a LOT of music.

Mixing in traditional drums, brass instruments and xylophones—which they actually use in their live shows—ODESZA synthesizes sound that is ethereal, but never artificial. Vocals are expertly layered in, often becoming another sound to contemplate, rather than lyrics with some meaning to follow.

ODESZA’s sophomore album, In Return, has more lyrical pop-y songs (“Say My Name,” “All We Need,” “It’s Only”), which are good on their own right, but the strength of them always lie in the perfect instrumentation and production. With the exception of “Light” featuring Little Dragon, my favorite songs are always the ones with the fewest words. I’m thinking of “How Did I Get Here,” “IPlayYouListen,” “Bloom,” “Koto” and “Memories That You Call” in particular. With those, my mind can take off and the song becomes a medium for whatever abstract emotion it chooses to provoke. Most often, elation.

ODESZA has made some epic remixes of a couple Pretty Lights songs that have become some of my favorite tracks of the year, especially “One Day They’ll Know” and “Lost and Found.” The original Pretty Lights take is exquisite, but ODESZA makes the songs completely their own, crafting them into something new and unique. (These tracks are not included in these albums, but they’re easy to find.) I don’t really want to rank this list of albums but if I were, these two would probably be #1.

Of the many concerts and shows I see every year, ODESZA is one of the greatest of the recent past. Their beats drop and soar, taking the crowd with them, cloaking us with an incredible light show that—when combined with the music— explodes in its intensity. Every sense is heightened and utilized, as you go inside the place where you can see what I mean when I say music is magic.ODESZA_InReturn_CoverArt1Best Tracks: I want to list every track.

Major Lazer – Peace is the Mission (2015)81Ku3QYtVCL._SL1500_I’ve been a huge Major Lazer fan for awhile and this year, the world got on my level. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, “Lean On” was a major hit this year and catapulted Major Lazer to universal popularity. I think it is well deserved.

Diplo, Jillionaire and Walshy Fire make up the electronic trio, whose music integrates and expands across so many types of genres that the results are hard to classify. Because of this—I theorize—they’ve had to create their own universe so that their music could exist. Thus, Major Lazer, its character and the world he dominates came to be.

I have great admiration for artists that imagine and create universes in their entirety so that their ideas can have a place and context. Essentially, this is what J.R.R. Tolkien did in inventing Middle Earth for his languages. In the past year, electronic music has earned more recognition and popularity, making it a ripe environment for Major Lazer (alongside other electronic artists like Jack Ü) to rise up, taking over radio play and making people dance everywhere.

Beyond “Lean On,” Peace is the Mission is loud and energetic. A perfect follow up to Free the Universe—one of my favorite albums of 2013—with tracks like “Be Together,” “Too Original,” “Powerful” “Light It Up” and “All My Love” (though I prefer the original version rather than the album’s remix). In the extended album version, “Light It Up” is reworked into a Latin-infused dance remix, which reminds me of another Major Lazer track I love: “Watch Out for This.”

What used to be too different and original to be popular has become the sound of a globalized society that through YouTube, SoundCloud and Spotify has access to every kind of music genre out there. Major Lazer just brings it all together. The group—particularly Diplo—has been accused of cultural appropriation, but generally, I have to disagree. Major Lazer partakes in cultural appreciation and in exploring various music genres honors the places and people that originated it. Sure, there has been some poor execution of this appreciation, especially when it comes to music videos. This is why I insist that music is an auditory experience that should have very little to do with the artist’s appearance or their video concepts. Let us judge Major Lazer by their music alone!

There are many downsides to globalization, but I think Major Lazer displays something positive. In forging anthems that traverse diverse musical influences, songs have been made that bring the world together.

Best Tracks: “Be Together,” “Lean On,” “Powerful,” “Light It Up”

Ludovico Einaudi – In A Time Lapse (The Remixes) (2013)fd4e7a41c1a74db984efaf2503fbec87Ludovico Einaudi is one of the great composers of modern classical music today. His music needs no help being awesome. To some audiences, it may be insulting to remix his music, especially to a genre that often seems to be the polar opposite in the musical spectrum. To me, classical and certain electronic genres have a lot of similarities, and I love this album because it shows that.

In this album, “Experience” is my favorite track that bypasses the soft beginning of the original, stepping straight into the crescendo. In intensifying the string instrumentation, the Starkey remix gives more power to instrumental phrases that are subtler in the original composition. Add in some electro beats and the classical piece gains new momentum, and a whole lot of zeal. In the same vein, Phaeleh’s remix of “Walk” dramatizes the music with electronic manipulation while still remaining faithful to the original. Greta Svabo Bech’s “Circles” reinvents the original “Experience” into something new the song inspired in her. I think it’s cool that music can be built on in that way.

I would never recommend this album above Einaudi’s originals, but I chose this as one of the best for the year because I am attracted to its energy. Einaudi’s most recent album, Elements and of course, the original In A Time Lapse have gotten plenty of listens this year too. If you’re new to this artist, I’d say start there — especially with “Night” from Elements.

Best Tracks: “Experience,” “Circles” and Phaeleh’s “Walk”

John Powell – How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Music From The Motion Picture) (2014)music_review1-1Music is so powerful; what would movies be without epic scores? Aside from me loving this movie and its story, the music in How to Train Your Dragon 2 is so emotive and legendary that it takes you on a journey that needs no visuals.

Meant to accompany a Viking setting, composer John Powell orchestrates music with a broad variety of instruments, most characteristically bagpipes, harps, flutes, cymbals, bells and strings, pulling from the musical traditions of Scotland, Ireland and the Nordic cultures that characterize the tale.

The sound created is, in a word, mythic. Without even seeing any scene, the score is a masterpiece. When combined with the beautiful animations, it is consuming. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is awesome, and much of its commendation must be given to the music.

Best Tracks: “Dragon Racing,” “Flying with Mother,” “For The Dancing And The Dreaming”

Chet Faker – Thinking in Textures (2012)81AwszvvjgL._SL1500_The first thing that drew me to this album was the title. When I listen to music, I most often focus on the different textures I hear and Chet Faker does not disappoint in creating these.

The Australian artist is fairly similar to James Blake, using R&B elements in his songs, best shown in his take of “No Diggity.” The song’s intro creates sonic flares as the beats and sounds flux between audio channels. His smooth vocals soothe the electronic textures that can be slightly jarring when isolated but, when together, all the pieces make jazzy harmonies like in “I’m Into You” and “Love and Feeling.” Other songs like “Cigarettes and Chocolate” have no lyrics, but rather are dreamy electronic creations similar to ODESZA’s sound. Also, Chet Faker and Flume’s “Drop the Game” is another track that can’t be missed, though its not part of this album.

Best Tracks: “I’m Into You” and “Cigarettes and Chocolate”

Theory of Discoustic – Alkisah EP (2014)photo.jpgI spent the summer in Indonesia and my friend, Ellen, introduced me to this relatively unknown band from Sulawesi. I immediately fell in love with the sparkly layered guitars and whimsical vocals that breathe life into the storybook scenarios I traveled through.

Indonesia has so much rare beauty and Theory of Discoustic has reproduced that in their music, describing it in detail in the lyrics of their songs. “Satu Hulan” sings of a boat anchored in the seaside—a familiar image in the lives of people who make their living in islands nearing the sea. In telling of the annual Mappalili rice planting ritual of Sulawesi, “Lengkara” speaks of the days singing and the colors of life. The music is primarily folkloric, and a testament that the purest beauty is often found—and produced—in the most unsung and unknown places in the world.

Best tracks: “Satu Hulan” and “Lengkara”

Milky Chance – Sadnecessary (2014)81hvJv9Bg8L._SL1500_With the perfect blend of reggae and electronic sounds, this is the most minimalist album on the list. That’s not to say that the album is plain. Like Jack Johnson, Milky Chance is clean and uncomplicated.

Most songs are laid-back, but memorable, with a little bit of funk brightening their sorrow. Milky Chance just sings—in their distinctively hoarse vocals— about life as it is: bittersweet. With a title like Sadnecessary, the German duo examine the empty city life (“Flashed Junk Mind”), and various shades of love, pain and loss. The songs are sad, but generally, the sound is not. If you disregard the lyrics, it’s good music for drinking beers under the sun.

Best Tracks: “Flashed Junk Mind,” “Running,” “Sadnecessary,” “Down by the River,” and “Stolen Dance”

Glass Animals – Zaba (2014)81v7i2aTxUL._SL1400_It’s been awhile since I’ve gotten stuck on album as hard as I did with this one. Listening to Zaba is like stepping into a maze of riddles, complete with mysterious animal sounds and throbbing drums. A perfect portrayal of what it’s like to dream and imagine—vacillating between what’s found in nature and what’s not—Glass Animals dismantle logic in their tenacious fables told in infectious, enigmatic singsong.

The album is mystifying, whispering and weaving illusions that ignite fantasy. “Gooey” is the epitome of this. Similar in sound and construction to Alt-J’s “Breezeblocks,” all of these songs seem made for tenebrous, but beloved, children stories like Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. “Black Mambo,” “Pools,” “Walla Walla,” “Hazey” and “Toes” could induce primeval ritualistic dance from prehistoric times. In fact, I’ve seen this happen in their live show. You can’t help but join the enchanting and hypnotic trance sustained by the bass, claps and guitars.

This album is definitely tied for #1 with ODESZA. Also, the music video for “Pools” is the coolest one I saw this year.

Best Tracks: EVERY SINGLE ONE.

Sohn – Tremors (2014)Sohn-tremorsIn a whirlwind of echoes and reverb, Sohn’s Tremors features pulsating electronic songs that twist through your head. Many of the songs literally circulate between audio channels simulating the sensation of motion even when you’re completely still. Just listen to “The Wheel.”

While some songs are more subdued with smooth, fluid vocals as in “Bloodflows” and “Ransom Notes,” Tremors is a tempest reproducing—simultaneously—calm and chaos in every single song. The tumult is audible, and it’s captivating. “Artifice” is the only song that doesn’t belong and, in my opinion, disturbs the mood the album establishes. I always skipped the track. Nevertheless, the overall album is blue and gray, full of melodic phrases that melt into the music, with some of the lyrics edging into insightful aphorisms.

Best Tracks: “The Wheel,” “Ransom Notes,” “Lights,” “Lessons” and “Tremors”

Bomba Estéreo – Amanecer (2015)Amanecer-Album-CoverEvery time I fall in love with a Spanish-language album, I thank my lucky stars for being Latin and knowing this language. Bomba Estéreo’s Amanecer is full of spirit, energy and gratitude for the gift of being alive—celebrating and appreciating growth, love, movement, emotion and the wake of a new day. (‘Amanecer’ means dawn.)

As a Colombian artist, Bomba Estéreo infuses their songs with passion and the jovial disposition that distinguishes the Colombian people. “Somos Dos,” “Soy Yo,” “Fiesta” and “Sólo Tú” incite revelry, inviting you to dance all night long, until you lose all inhibitions. With its tropical electronic beats, the music contemplates the physical and organic—hearts, people, seas, stars, skies, and the sun as felt and seen through human eyes. “Algo Esta Cambiando” and “Mar (Lo Que Siento)” candidly speak of the fleetingness of life, an enthusiasm to keep dancing into it, choosing to be happy with eyes wide open and determination. Even without understanding the words, you hear it. “Raiz” is my favorite song of the album as it personifies a root with deep, soulful lyrics.

Unlike much electronic music that so often muses the metaphysical, Amanecer is down-to-earth, unpretentiously examining the wonder of the worldly experience.

Notable Mentions:

  • Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves (2015)
  • Jack Ü – Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü (2014)
  • Flume – Flume (2013)
  • Various Artists – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Top Tracks: 

This post is already so long, but these are a few (not all) of the most significant:

Lastly, I wrote a song and recorded over the last year and, though it’s far from perfect, I like the way it came out. I definitely need to acquire a USB microphone to prevent the sound from saturating as it did, but I accomplished my goal of creating a sonic universe in “Frequencies,” which can be heard here. I don’t make songs too often because I get way too consumed by the production process, but it’s always a lot of fun and a way to exercise my guitar skills and creativity. (As well as some of the skills from my music degree!)

And that concludes the best music I’ve encountered in 2015. For more awesome music, these are the lists for 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Happy New Year all!

Love, peace and music always.

 

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