Top 10 Albums of 2015

Aah, the end of the year has come. 2015 has been a big year for music on pop radio and everywhere else. But amongst all the mixtape, singles, radio shows and slew of albums, ten stood out as the most enjoyable and memorable. What better way to cap off the year than to count them down. Let’s go!!!!

 

 

10. King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude (Pusha T)

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How boss is Pusha T? In a span of a month (the last month of 2015, mind you) the 38-year-old became the president of G.O.O.D. Music, continued to flex Adidas’ finest new footwear and dropped a full-length album that’s really a tease for his next project (King Push, due next year) but it’s actually one of the best albums of the year. Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude reminds the rap game that Push is one of the meanest MCs alive right now. “M.F.T.R.” has him bouncing along with quick quips (“No retirement plans, no Derek Jeters/ We all know I did it; Rodriguez”) while summing up the entire rap game (“Crutches, Crosses, Caskets”). But Pusha is as self-aware as rap has been this year, and Kendrick isn’t the only one who sees the danger for black people today (“Still a target, but the badge is the new noose/ Yeah, we all see it, but cellphones aren’t enough proof/ So we still lose”). Don’t keep us waiting, Push.

 

 

9. Uptown Special (Mark Ronson)

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If you’re like me and prefer a classic Ray Charles record over Rihanna’s latest, Mark Ronson was probably a saving grace to your music this year. Uptown Special is the Grammy-winning producer’s version of a throwback mixtape; taking the soulful sounds of the 60s, 70s and 80s into the 21st century with new artists. “Feel Right” with Mystikal (nice to have you back, sir) is the best James Brown song the Godfather never made, while “I Can’t Lose,” is a delightful burst of 80s funk. And of course, there’s “Uptown Funk,” Bruno Mars’ finest moment and the best hit song of 2015 (despite coming out in 2014). The swagger and bounce of the whole record is something sorely missed on the charts this year. DON’T BELEMME, JUST WATCH *CLAP*.

 

 

8. Tuxedo (Tuxedo)

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The team of producer Jake One and R&B singer Mayer Hawthorne turned out to be a match made in heaven in the most flat-out fun album of the year. The duo’s debut outing is everything anyone ever loved about Kool & the Gang, Zapp, Soul Train and the G-Funk that birthed West Coast rap. Stuff like “Do It,” “Watch the Dance,” and “So Good” are the epitome of “get up and dance” music that’s actually fun to dance to. The duo slows it down too, as “Two Wrongs” showcases Hawthorne smooth vocals beyond beyond a discount-Timberlake. More from these two, please.

 

 

7. Surf (Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment)

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Furthering proof the Chance the Rapper is one of the best thing to happen to rap in a long time, this free download mixes sunny jazz with bratty rap and soulful R&B to a near-perfect mix. Donnie Trumpet orchestrates everything like an experience rather than just a handful of test-runs. There’s spacey stuff to zone-out to (“Windows,” “Caretaker,”), stuff to bop around to (“Wanna Be Cool,” “Go,”) and just stuff that makes you feel good without the use of codeine. The best of the bunch is “Sunday Candy,” a joyous romp about the importance of identity told through Chance’s appreciation of his grandma. You won’t find that on any of Future’s mixtapes.

 

 

6. If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late (Drake)

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Who would’ve thought Drake could get so pissy and yet sound so great? Released as a surprise back in February as a retail mixtape (or as we used to call them, “albums”), Drizzy started his stellar 2015 by reminding people how he’s a really good rapper. With harder street beats courtesy of Boi-1da, Drake lays out how he’s already reached god status (“Legend”), reminds the rap game that he’s just fine with reminding the haters how awesome he is (“Used To,” featuring an on-point Lil Wayne) and made having woes seem like the most baller thing to have (“Know Yourself”). He makes room for guests like PARTYNEXTDOOR (“Wednesday Night Interlude”), but it’s The Drake Show all the way through. If you didn’t take Drake seriously, 2015 was probably the last chance you’d get to switch teams. Or not, he’s too high at the top to hear the haters anymore.

 

 

5. The Magic Whip (Blur)

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Hey look, a new album from a beloved alternative rock band that was actually awesome! With their first new album in 12 years, the Britpop legends managed to stay true to their colors to please fans (“Lonesome Street, “Ong Ong,” “Go Out,”) and craft a new sound to push forward with (“There Are Too Many Of Us,” “Ice Cream Man,” “New World Towers,”). The presence of guitarist Graham Coxon remains one of the driving forces of the band, fuzzing our the amp one song and gently strumming the next. Singer Damon Albarn is still a relatable introvert nearly 20 years since he debuted (“Is my terracotta heart breaking?/I don’t know if I’m losing you/If I’m losing you again”). Relax Damon, you and the boys have still got it.

 

 

4. Sound & Color (Alabama Shakes)

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After their 2012 Grammy-nominated debut made the world prick up its ear to their grimy yet soulful garage rock, Alabama Shakes decided to take their listeners on a far-out trip. The result is one of the heaviest, yet prettiest rock records of the year. The band stretches out their sound and lets things breathe on the title track, “Guess Who,” and the haunting closer “Over My Head.” But that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped making tracks that punch through the speakers, as heard on “Don’t Wanna Fight,” “Future People,” and “The Greatest.” If Etta James ever sang for The Black Keys, it would sound a lot like the Alabama Shakes.

 

 

3. Every Open Eye (Chvrches)

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If New Order was ever led by a feminist, it would sound a lot like Chvrches’ second album. The Scottish trio burst through 2015 with stadium-ready anthems about powering through the tough times and breaking from whatever shell people feel they’ve been trapped in. For lead singer Laruen Mayberry, it could be from a bad relationship in “Leave a Trace,” (“Take care to bury all that you can/Take care to leave a trace of a man”) or from the general boredom of daily life in “Make Them Gold” (“We are made of our longest days/We are falling but not alone”). “Clearest Blue” is like the best song from an indie rom-com soundtrack where Mayberry puts herself out and asks for her partner to meet her in the middle. Somehow Chvrches have taken confessional power pop and electro-alternative and made them meet in the middle.

 

 

2. Caracal (Disclosure)

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Most EDM music today sounds the same, gets boring quickly and has no worth or merit besides throwing your body into a sweaty heap. That said, there are some that see the potential of EDM and expand on it. Two of them are Guy and Howard Lawrence, the British brothers of Disclosure that turned dance music on its head with their 2013 debut Settle. This year they decided to make moodier, thicker and all around groovier music with their sophomore effort Caracal. The album title is named after a nocturnal African wild cat, which makes total sense with the songs sounding like that of a predator: sneaking up on the listener and hitting when it’s least expected. Songs like “Willing & Able,” “Masterpiece,” and “Superego” are slow-burners meant for intimate Netflix and Chill nights instead of sweaty grinding amongst neon lights, a welcomed change of pace in the EDM world. Fear not though, as the Lawrence brothers still know how to make floor two-stepping floor stompers with “Holding On,” “Jaded,” and “Echoes.” Disclosure combine thick bass lines with clapping drums that sync into delicious rhythm. They also have a great rolodex by bringing in the likes of Sam Smith, The Weeknd and Sam Smith to make things sweeter. Disclosure is dance music with REAL feeling put into it and Caracal makes them all the more interesting.

 

 

1. To Pimp A Butterfly (Kendrick Lamar)

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SURPRISE! Yeah but really, it’s been a long time since an album this poetic and timely has hit the music world. Kendrick’s sophomore effort is the Birdman of rap albums: something entirely different from the norm surrounding it, focuses on tension that constantly moves throughout the runtime, covers multiple topics of discussion prevalent in today’s culture and is the ultimate fly-on-the-wall experience. While Birdman was fly-on-the-wall for the world of theatre and actors, To Pimp A Butterfly gazes behind the curtain into the mindset of the man constantly being called “the greatest rapper alive.” That title can add a lot of pressure, turning into a drunken self-criticism on one’s own rocket to fame (“u”) or a kiss-off to the entire idea of ranking rappers (“Hood Politics”). Kendrick’s worried about being trapped as well, but from pleasure and pain. “These Walls” praises the trappings of sex (“If these walls could talk, they tell me to swim good….Walls telling me they full of pain, resentment..Me? I’m just a tenant”) and brings it all back to prison (“If your walls could talk, they’d tell you it’s too late/Your destiny accepted your fate…I resonate in these walls/I don’t know how long I can wait in these walls”). He’s damaged by the power of money (“Institutionalized”), shocked at how different he is from his home (“Momma”), and feels hypocritical partying like a gangster while being the new spokesman for black America (“The Blacker The Berry”). But To Pimp A Butterfly is also the sound of Kendrick finding himself in the midst of the madness, finding redemption in the darkest of times (“i”). He even takes a character known for being whipped and beaten and turns him into a term to state his pride (“King Kunta”). He calls out fakes (“I swore I wouldn’t tell/But most of y’all sharing bars/Like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell”) but inspires his fellow man (“Sky could fall down, wind could cry now/Look at me motherfucker I smile/ I LOVE MYSELF”). To Pimp A Butterfly deserves to be put in a time capsule; it feels like a snapshot of 2015.

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The Franchise Awakens

Don’t worry, everybody: it’s good. How good? Well….

Disney had quite the mountain to climb when they announced an entirely new trilogy of Star Wars movies was going into production. Not only would they follow the original trilogy over 30 years after its conclusion, not only would they bring back the original stars (Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill), not only would George Lucas not be involved in the entire process (a good or bad thing depending on who you ask) but it would primarily follow a new set of characters and a new plot line. For any other franchise, that’d be a somewhat tough task. But for one of the (if not THE) most iconic film franchise in history, that’s like climbing Mt. Everest blindfolded wearing a light windbreaker. Nevertheless, the House of Mouse decided to play dirty with one thought; who better to revive this beloved sci-fi space opera than the guy who revived that OTHER beloved sci-fi space opera? J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III, Super 8) answered the call and conquered Everest…but not without some struggle.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. The Empire was defeated, but from their ashes rose a new sinister galactic force called The First Order, featuring Sith warrior Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). When they reveal their greatest weapon with the intent to destroy The Republic, a group of outsiders team up to save the galaxy. That group includes scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac)….oh yeah, and these two old smugglers named Han Solo (Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

 

The first thing to say about The Force Awakens is that it’s most definitely a J.J. Abrams movie, as evidence by the visuals and the pacing. As seen in his Star Trek films and Mission: Impossible III, Abrams keeps the movie light on its feet and moving at a brisk pace. That’s a hit and miss strategy since the pacing keeps the movie moving without ever getting boring but also takes the emotional punch out of the more serious scenes (especially in the first half). In fact, the movie’s two main elements are split between the two halves of the 135-minute runtime. The first half has great visuals and builds atmosphere well but the character establishment is lacking, whereas the second half has the audience fully invested in the characters’ actions but the visual wham of it has somewhat worn off. Not that the visuals in the movie aren’t already very impressive, as Abrams glossy sheen on scenes with the Millennium Falcon or The First Order’s reveal of their great weapon. The most of the plot of the movie and the script (assembled by Abrams, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan) are both cohesive plot elements and references to the original trilogy. There are some throwaway scenes that matter little to the pot but just keep the movie going, so The Force Awakens keeps audiences in the seats just long enough to keep them from questioning whether or not they’ve seen this before.

 

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John Boyega and Daisy Ridley Photo Credit: JoBlo

 

The Force Awakens hits a real home run with its casting, specifically its new lead characters. John Boyega (Attack the Block) and Daisy Ridley (Scrawl) have fantastic chemistry between each other and with the Star Wars universe in general. They and Oscar Isaac bring the energy and humanity missing from the prequels because they’re allowed to look like they’re excited to be here. They want to fly the Falcon, they want to shoot Stormtroopers, they want to be involved in the legacy of The Force. It’s clear from the two leads of their passion for the movie as to how invested they are in the universe around them. Boyega’s Finn is searching for a new purpose throughout the movie after exiling himself (rather abruptly, though) from The First Order. Maybe it’s because of the pacing that his transformation feels a bit too quick, but his charisma carries him through. Adam Driver (Girls) makes for a surprisingly compelling villain as Kylo Ren, even if he is essentially a Darth Vader fanboy gone to the extreme. He gets a bit hard to buy once he takes that helmet off, but the way he uses his backstory (no spoilers) to make his transformation fully-formed sells the whole thing (and yes, his lightsaber is awesome). The heart and soul of the movie is Ridley as the scrappy dreamer Rey. In no way, shape or form is she a damsel in distress. Instead, she’s the one who moves the whole story forward as the dreamer looking to escape her wasteland planet (basically a discount Tatooine) and discover herself. She’s leading Finn through the perils of The First Order, she’s the one piloting the Falcon, she’s the one challenging Kylo. She’s no Furiosa, but Ridley makes Rey feel fully-formed and, for the first time in the Star Wars universe, inhabits a character that the audience wants to see more of in later movies.

 

Despite the excellent job the two main leads do with their work, there’s also a feeling of missed opportunity with some of the supporting players. The likes of Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o and especially Gwendoline Christie are criminally underused in their small roles. They’re clearly happy to join the Star Wars universe and some ham it up to show their appreciation (Gleeson especially as the hilariously sniveling General Hux), but their characters deserved a bit more to do. For those wondering why I haven’t mentioned the original cast, it’s because they’re barely in the movie. The Force Awakens is probably the most Han-centric Star Wars movie to date, but Harrison Ford brings nothing really new to the character. Not that it’s a bad thing, since Ford is one of those guys who out-acts people in his sleep. He and Carrie Fisher still have that chemistry that audiences loved from the original trilogy and even in the elder state, there’s a warm love still felt between the two. And all I’ll say about Hamill is that he’s in the movie.

 

I want to cap this off by emphasizing that, again, The Force Awakens is a good movie. Abrams and his production team establish a universe that is both undoubtedly Star Wars yet unique from previous installments. The production design is fantastic, the effects (both practical and special) are great, and the movie has some of the best cast and characters seen in Star Wars since Return of the Jedi. But here’s the rub; The Force Awakens is less a directly connected sequel, but the purest definition of a “soft reboot.” This movie clearly wants nothing to do with the prequels (maybe in every shape and form) and everything to do with the original trilogy. From a business standpoint, bringing Star Wars movies back into production was more about the maddening hype and excitement of the event more than the event itself. But perhaps out of pure luck or maybe actual passion for this franchise, Disney got a director and team that actually wanted to create something new with Star Wars. Abrams and company’s work feels like that of a team that dressed up in cosplay, wrote essays on the subtext of the movies, made fan-films and alternate endings to the movies. Everyone involved in The Force Awakens (aside from maybe Ford, but that’s forgivable) cared about what they were doing. The Force Awakens is actually similar to the miracle of The Lego Movie: a purely corporate business decision meant to make money and generate marketing revenue that was given actual effort and passion put into it. Granted, The Lego Movie is far better than The Force Awakens, but this movie accomplished its mission. The world wants more Star Wars, Hollywood wants more Star Wars, I want more Star Wars.

 

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4