Overlooked Albums of 2015
This Wednesday, the Scene staff will unveil its list of the best albums of 2015 after much deliberation and anguish. Today, some of our writers make the case for their personal favorites that flew under the radar. The artists on this list run the gamut from a former girl group member turned shapeshifting pop auteur to bilingual punks out of Providence, Rhode Island, but all released albums worthy of consideration among the year’s best.
All Dogs — “Kicking Everyday”
By Adam Ramos
All Dogs, a four-piece, brooding rock outfit from Columbus, Ohio, released their splendid debut, “Kicking Everyday,” late in the summer, an appropriate time considering their warm blend of melancholic harmonies. The main influence on the album is ‘90s grunge rock — I would definitely recommend if you’re into bands like Speedy Ortiz or Cloud Nothings. The album also functions as an emotional purge for frontwoman Maryn Jones, with each song acting as a mini-investigation into her personal feelings through creative songwriting and candid vulnerability. Like she croons over screeching guitars on the album’s opening track: “When you’re looking for a reason to feel ashamed like me / I am a black hole all, I take in.”
Downtown Boys — “Full Communism”
By Matt McMahon
“Why is it that fear always wants us to go looking for more? So when people are brown, when people are smart, white hegemony wants us to go looking for this third thing. Why is it that we never have enough with just what’s inside of us? Today we must scream at the top of our lungs that we are brown, we are smart.” Downtown Boys’ lead singer Victoria Ruiz delivers this charged speech as an intro to single “Monstro” off her band’s debut album, providing a mission statement not only for the band, but for anyone similarly fed up with today’s social injustices. Continued across the rest of its hard-hitting 23 minutes of “bilingual political dance sax punk,” “Full Communism” is as fueled by Ruiz’s contemptuous snarl as its two-minute, brass- and percussion-blasted tracks.
Kauan — “Sorni Nai”
By John Darr
In 1959, nine hikers in Russia’s Ural Mountains abandoned their tents and fled in different directions to meet their frostbitten deaths. The mysterious incident, set in one of the most awe-inspiring and unforgiving landscapes on Earth, is the perfect fodder for a Kauan album. Kauan’s epic fusion of post-rock and black metal provide them with every musical tool usually associated with the spacious and epic: crushing guitars, reverberating drums, swelling strings, gorgeous synthesizer pads and so on. It’s no surprise, then, that “Sorni Nai” is the “biggest” record of the year. The crisp yet atmospheric production does a wonderful job of conveying the story’s mountainous setting. The excellent vocal work swings gracefully between haunting melodies and crushing roars. The string and guitar progressions are constructed with precision but performed with soaring abandon.
“Sorni Nai” is a showcase for the power of black metal elements in an accessible context. Melody and harmony are ever-present; their impact and beauty are only increased by the walls of guitar and guttural vocals that usually scare listeners away from the metal genre. It’s a remarkable crossover accomplishment. The absence of “Sorni Nai” from year-end lists is as big a mystery as the event that inspired it.
Oddisee — “The Good Fight”
By Adam Ramos
Late last spring, D.C-based rapper/producer Oddisee dropped “The Good Fight,” an eclectic hip-hop record dripping with soul. “The Good Fight” boasts expert production and showcases Oddisee at his best, mixing effortless rhymes with impeccable flow. Combined with Oddisee’s inventive production, the result is a beautiful, creative exploration into the limits of popular modern hip-hop. Songs like “Counter-Clockwise” and “That’s Love” are not only fun, but fruitful. On the surface you have fun, jazz-pop-infused hooks, but underneath you find inventive, powerful storytelling.
Dawn Richard — “Blackheart”
By Matthew Munhall
The former Danity Kane and Diddy-Dirty Money member is in full-blown auteur mode on “Blackheart,” the second album in her planned Heart trilogy. Richard’s futuristic, genre-defying art-pop seamlessly synthesizes styles from electro and funk to calypso and house, frequently defying traditional pop song structures even as she crafts world-conquering hooks. The most indelible of these is “Billie Jean,” which reimagines Michael Jackson’s obsessive groupie as an empowered, money-making sex fiend. For all the album’s boundary-pushing production, what ultimately makes “Blackheart” so compelling is the universal redemption narrative at its center: It opens with Richard crying out, “I thought I lost it all!” but by the end she’s triumphantly declaring, “I’ll rise like a phoenix.”
Susanne Sundfør — “Ten Love Songs”
By Matthew Munhall
Norwegian singer/songwriter Susanne Sundfør creates electropop for cathedrals — titling her sixth studio album “Ten Love Songs” somewhat undersells just how grandiose these songs are. Each of Sundfør’s meditations on longing and heartbreak is elevated to life-or-death proportions: “Wars erupting like volcanoes / Blood streaming down the walls” is how she violently describes one particular relationship; “You won’t let go, you won’t give in / ‘Til every part of you is suffering,” she warns on another song. These gothic pop songs unfold in unexpected ways, from the ominous organ solo that haunts “Accelerate” to the gunshot percussion that echoes throughout “Delirious.” “Memorial,” a 10-minute epic co-produced with M83’s Anthony Gonalez, does the most shapeshifting, beginning as a ballad before morphing into a cosmic orchestral suite. Yet, even at their most menacing, her songs are always grounded in skyscraping melodies. With “Ten Love Songs,” Sundfør has created an expansive pop masterpiece that compels you to dance even as it rips your heart out.
Turnover — “Peripheral Vision”
By John Darr
There are a lot of elements in pop-punk I truly enjoy. There’s the unstoppable youthful energy, the heartfelt lyricism and the relentless catchiness of the vocal and guitar melodies. However, it’s a genre I rarely sit down and listen to because, well, I associate it with middle school and everything unpleasant about it. It’s often obnoxious, self-obsessed and belligerent. Sophistication in thought and form are relatively hard to come by.
Turnover have made a magical transformation from a pop-punk band to an understated indie rock band, preserving everything I love about pop-punk while dropping the general vein of immaturity that runs through it. “Peripheral Vision” is a record loaded with vocal and instrumental hooks and laser-guided precision in its songwriting. It’s clear, wandering guitar hooks and soft vocals are both engaging and easy to listen to. However, Turnover maintains a heaviness and urgency that’s often absent in the music of its peers (Real Estate, Ducktails, Lotus Plaza, etc.). Turnover’s arrangements are denser — their low-end production a little rougher and warmer than those who’ve come before them. “Peripheral Vision” is a remarkable record because it’s the work of a band that has entered a genre and managed to improve upon its general formula. That, and because it’s an absolutely delightful listen.