15) Beach House
“Sparks” – Depression Cherry
“There’s a place I want to take you” sings Victoria LeGrande on the superbly-titled Depression Cherry. And she does. Beach House albums transport you, reliably and remarkably. One shows up every couple of years, like a hidden portal in the back of a child’s fanciful wardrobe faithfully re-opening to the same magical realm. It can feel like different seasons each time you step inside — the icy beauty of 2008’s Devotion, the spring-like upsurge of 2010’s Teen Dream, the warm narcosis of 2012’s Bloom, and now Depression Cherry’s sad, autumnal afterglow — but the fuzzy vitality of the place never changes. It’s loud and pin-drop quiet, fulminating and torpid, like the shifting ambiance of a thousand-seat cathedral as it fills up to capacity then empties out.
Beach House’s hallmark is to repeat gauzy sonic motifs to near meditative effect, and while Depression Cherry possesses that welcome air of wonder, remembrance and loss, there’s also an underlying lassitude to that familiarity — the faintest hint that these stories may be running their course, the magic ever so slightly drying up. But those concerns get erased by thunderous lead single “Sparks.” Its abrasive, brawny textures push Beach House past gossamer dream-pop and into rarefied air occupied by shoe-gazers My Bloody Valentine. When the song crests, there’s a colossal God’s breath of analog organs, a delicate dance between metronomic tip-toeing and booming drums, and Alex Scally’s liquid guitar lines coil around the swell of Legrande’s dusky croon like little tongues of flame. It’s a resounding doorstop against that the notion that the gate to their ephemeral world is closing. “Sparks” takes you deep inside, farther than ever before, and holds you.
“REALiTi” – Art Angels
Claire Boucher obliterates stereotypes. Female musicians lack creative control? Under her pen name Grimes, she wrote, sang, played, and produced every note on her fourth and most critically acclaimed album. Indie electronica can’t be engaging? Listen to the effervescent bliss of “Pin” or “California’s” sunny jangle, and try not to think top 40. Art requires suffering? Nonsense. Boucher forewent the fortnight of drug-induced insomnia and isolation she endured for 2012 breakthrough Visions and adopted better sleeping and eating habits to create Art Angels, the most accessible, inventive record of her career.
Autonomy grants Grimes an innate understanding of her own strengths and wherewithal to employ them as balanced counterpoints. Art Angels’ songs hit hardest when her rapturous falsetto is underpinned by chunky low end — the innard-quaking, four-on-the-floor thump of “REALiti,” the roiling synth whirlpool of “Butterfly,” and Vietnamese rap meets Peter Gunn-theme jolt of “SCREAM” (a rap about recording the sound of an orgasm mercifully disguised in Mandarin Chinese). “Kill V. Maim’s” valley-girlesque chant incites a pep rally from hell where the cheerleaders make bonfires out of the jocks; “Cuz I’m only a man/ Do what I can” Grimes jeers, cutting male oppression off at the knees.
Surreptitiously planted right between 1989 and E•MO•TION on the iPod of my seven year-old daughter (who, to be clear, doesn’t speak Mandarin Chinese), Art Angels is a sleeper cell of indie insurgency, a dose of nutrition sneaked into a sugar-soaked popsicle without her even batting an eyelash. It’s a testament to pop music’s tumultuous, uninhibited state that Claire Boucher is having as much influence on Taylor and Carly Rae as they are on her. Grimes proves the only thing more fun than breaking the rules is making up new ones as you go along.
“Hotline Bling” – single
It must be exhausting to be Drake. The world’s biggest hip hop artist possesses neither of his predecessor’s superpowers (Jay Z’s jaw-dropping flow or Kayne’s merciless stylistic innovation), yet he sits upon the very same throne they once occupied. Or rather, he guards it. Because, you see, Drake never sits. On fame, on songs, on the Toronto Raptors, on the next business opportunity to expose you to the brand that is Drake. People were so amped for Views From the 6 that surprise 2015 mix tape If You’re Reading This It’s Already Too Late hit like a sneaky right hook, the sort of “I took the summer off to perfect my game, but sorry, fuck ya’ll, I actually worked all summer, now I’m miles ahead of you” type of record. Drake’s most defining tracks in the past couple years, “0 to 100/The Catch Up,” and “Hotline Bling,” were orphans, one-off singles dropped without the safety net of an album to even catch them. He’s mastered the art of moving units off-cycle and maintaining productivity without the crash; a human 5-hour energy drink.
It’s this restless energy, if not originality, that’s most invigorating. “Hotline Bling” carjacks a riff from R&B singer Timmy Thomas’s “Why Can’t We Live Together” and coaxes it into balmy, bedroom swagger. Never mind if Drake comes across as creepy, narcissistic, and hypocritical for slut-shaming a girl who’s basically the female version of himself. All is forgiven when that juicy dance hall hook drops, invading the public consciousness like a SWAT team raid. Every video is now a meme machine, every passing expression a cultural catchphrase, (“with my woes!”), every Noah “40” Shebib beat a potential ear worm. Is Drake really this good or are we simply saturated into submission? If you’re reading this and wondering and listening, it’s already too late. He’s got you.
“Coffee” – Wildheart
Wildheart’s cover sports a nude, well-toned woman kneeling at the altar of Miguel, who is also nude, ringed by stars, and seemingly privy to the secrets of the cosmos. The 30-year old indie R&B artist exudes an odd blend of grandiosity and insecurity that could fittingly be characterized as piece-of-crap-at-center-of-the-universe syndrome. He touts the benefits of transcendental meditation, but often comes across as a sex-obsessed high school sophomore. (Bad poetry mantra “Lips, tits, clit, slit” from “The Valley” is about as subtle as the adult film shoot aesthetic the song extols). Album opener “Beautiful Exit” fetishizes dying young more convincingly than anything since Kayne’s “Power,” but you get the sense that Miguel’s invested in leaving a legacy far more than being just a pop star.
Like Yeezy before him, Miguel has parlayed genre-busting talent, self-absorption, and public notoriety into extraordinary success. His most culturally indelible moment to date is a stage leap gone terribly awry, but third album Wildheart ensures he’s vaulted across a chasm of a different sort — the gap between traditional soul & funk to more a eclectic mix of rock, new wave, and gurgling electronics. It’s a bold maneuver that garners critical acclaim and cements his status an outsider, an aspect he both wallows and revels in on Wildheart: “I’m in a crowd and I feel alone…I never feel like I belong.” Indeed, for every Babyface and Prince comparison made, there’s a rogue strand of Bowie and Queen lurking in Miguel’s musical DNA.
Wildheart’s hooks aren’t as digestible as the ones found on silky jam “Sure Thing” or #1 R&B smash “Adorn,” but “Coffee” still makes for a smooth concoction that’s equal parts steamy and sweet. The chorus reads like Miguel’s Steps to Better Romance — charm the pants off ’em, make passionate love, enjoy post-coital pleasantries, and share a little Folgers in the morning. Is it gentlemanly? Hardly. There’s a reason the EP version of the song was originally subtitled “Coffee (Fucking)” and its cover adorned by Miguel in a pair of crotchless jeans. “Coffee” proves as cunning as it is appealing, the rare commercial triumph with perverse staying power. If Miguel has found divinity in the act of tantric copulation, he hasn’t forgotten the lesson of the common horn dog: sex sells.
11) FKA twigs
“In Time” – M3LLI55X
“I’ve a baby inside” reveals Tahliah Barnett (a.k.a. FKA twigs) over a shuddering, sexy lurch of industrial-tinged R&B, and the line launches a thousand supermarket tabloids. But the joke’s on Robert Pattinson fans; the Hollywood heartthrob’s newly-minted fiancé practices subversion of not only sound and vision, but of public perception. The bun in the oven is in fact twigs’ third EP M3LLI55X (pronounced “Mellissa”), a spontaneously recorded five-song set that lay in quiet gestation until a surprise delivery (fittingly) nine months later. It’s aberrant, evocative, and despite clocking in at just under 19 minutes, twigs’ most fully realized work to date. M3LLI55X is a record about itself; a dark, impulsive creation about the impulse to create.
If twigs’ LP1 was the clean, whirring sound of a factory floor, M3LLI55X resides deep in the machinist’s inner sanctum; a space built on shredded synths, metal-scraping percussion, wall-to-wall sonic grease and grime. It’s a fitting backdrop for twigs’ exploration of the core aspects of her femininity — sex, emotional intimacy, motherhood — via the lens of deviant psychology and sinister artistry. During M3LLI55X’s accompanying music video suite, twigs changes shapes; from blow-up sex doll, deflated and inseminated, to a pregnant woman leaking pastel paints, to her own midwife when, in a jaw-dropping climax, twigs yanks a stream of rainbow scarves from her womb (literally) like some David Copperfield trick gone fucking bananas.
Yet for each titillating shock, there are finespun subtleties. On “In Time,” she accosts an estranged lover “You got a goddamn nerve,” her angelic voice pitch-altered and steeled, its beauty sharpened into cyborg aggression. But by the final chorus, the effects vanish and twigs’ aching soprano breaks ever so slightly over the same phrase — vulnerable, hungry, the definition of human. “Stay with me in this” she suggests, both tender request and bewitching command. If the guy she’s addressing is Pattinson, he’s marrying up. Twigs’ work exudes an emotional complexity that’s difficult to pin down and hard to come by. Listening to M3LLI55X you can appreciate his position — what it means to be enamored, bound, at the mercy of another.