We’re only just halfway through this year and already it’s bestowed upon us some seminal albums, some bolt from the blue debuts, and some genuine stone cold instant classics – you know the ones I mean.
So, what better point than midway to come up for air, catch our breath, compose ourselves, and assess what’s already come out. All before we take a deep breath and dive right into the rest of what’s yet to come.
Over the next few pages, a variety of vultures, all impeccably cultured, will take you through the best albums of the year so far. Let us know what you think.
Algiers – Algiers
It’s not often that both an artist and an album come so seemingly out of nowhere, as if to have burst into existence fully formed right before your eyes, but when it does, it’s always a thrill. Rarer still, though, is for both an artist and an album to come seemingly out of nowhere and not just take you aback with surprise, but as immediately as they appeared plant themselves firmly among both your favourite new bands and your favourite albums of the year.
However, that’s what happened with Algiers, their debut, and I. No sooner than I’d first stumbled upon this Atlanta, Georgia trio, than their debut arrived, and in it one of my favourite albums of the year so far. From. First. Listen. The album starts as it means to go on with the slow burning opener, ‘Remains’, that lets you know exactly what Algiers are about, but by no means gives away all they have to offer. That’s still to come over the course of the albums’ remaining run time.
The band found the perfect resting place somewhere between post-punk, industrial, gospel, blues, work song, and gothic noise; a place I didn’t realise I was looking for until I found myself there. Immediately strikingly unique, and a breath of fresh air (see: thick with sulphur and fire), Algiers’ experimental instrumentation keeps you uncomfortable, their soulful melodies keep you calm, and their jarring effects keep you on edge, all the while Franklin James Fisher’s vocals put the fear of God into you.
Bjork – Vulnicura
Do I really have to provide an introduction for Bjork? I mean, come on, who isn’t at least a little aware of diminutive demigoddess, and voice of the universe, Bjork? Genre-bending, and boundary pushing, singer-songwriter, Bjork? Multi-coloured fashion exploder, and multi-platform auteur, Bjork? Pint-sized picture of perfect crazy, and obvious candidate for Icelandic royalty, Bjork? Exactly. No one.
Anyhoo, this year saw Bjork release her ninth studio album, further cementing herself as a bona fide force of creativity and a genuine artistic legend. Whereas many bands, singers, and songwriters, would’ve fallen foul of complacency long before their ninth album, let alone on it, Bjork instead elected to continue evolving as an artist, songwriter, and producer. Oh, and while she was at it, saw fit to writing and releasing one of her most passionately, and painfully, honest albums to date. As well as perhaps one of the albums of her career.
The album isn’t often an easy listen, but it isn’t meant to be, dealing as it does so vividly with the lengthy and arduous experience of going through heartbreak; as Bjork did prior to and during the writing and recording of this album. The instrumentation is often experimental and tense, but just as often immersive and beautiful as the songs sprawl over considerable run times. As always, though, Bjork’s vocals are powerful, emotive, technical, alien, and stunning.
You know when I said that it’s not often that an artist and an album come together so seemingly out of nowhere, fully formed in front of you, and then how it’s rarer still for both artist and album to plant themselves so firmly among your favourites, almost instantly? Well, maybe I lied, or at the very least this year has been kind to me. Evidence of either comes in Jenny Hval’s third album, Apocalypse, girl.
It’s impossible to listen to Apocalypse, girl and not feel something, from the get go it makes no bones about its being an abrasive and in your face album. This in-your-faceiveness, comes most prominently from Hval’s blunt, forward, and utterly open lyricism; dealing with sexuality, gender, body image, subculturism, consumerism, society as a whole, and introspective confessionals. Hval’s lyrics very much encapsulate the personal and the political, but so too are they unafraid to embrace the abstract, the absurd, the surreal, and the downright hilariou.
Sonically, the albums bleeds from the open wounds of a number of genres – including, but not limited to, pop, drone, indie, psychedelia, electronica, and folk – to form a fluid pool of styles that flow freely from one another or sometimes come together simultaneously. It’s an expansive album that isn’t shy about its intimacies, no matter what they might reveal.
Seemingly not content with simply being one of the best funk/future soul outfits in the world, Australian band Hiatus Kaiyote have absolutely outdone themselves with their second LP. Blending together genres in a way that almost recounts the very essence of jazz and soul, the band then bring in other unexpected, but joyous, elements like 16-bit video game sounds and bizarre, introspective lyrics. There’s even a track intended as a tribute to Hayou Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
Diamond District member Oddisee has never been a rapper to gloss over. Since 2005 he’s thrown out dozens of albums, mixtapes and EPs, gradually making more and more people aware of his prowess. With The Good Fight, he’s outdone himself. It’s an inward-looking album, far more concerned with the ways we process the outside world than the outside world itself, and the always razor sharp rhymes range from biting to beautiful. The cleanliness and jazziness of the production is the album’s strongest brag though, it’s the purest, most unfettered hip-hop album to come out in years, the vibe never gets lost and the beat never wanders away from its mark. It’s the musical equivalent of a page-turner.
What is there left to be said about To Pimp a Butterfly that hasn’t been said already? Lamar has been a name to note down for a long time, proving time and time again that he is not only a powerful rapper, but also an inventive musical leader and a strong voice for the African American community, if not the USA at large. He also has a good sense of humour about himself, he dropped a verse for The Lonely Island for Pete’s sake. TPAB has only been out for a few months but it’s already cemented its position as a cultural treasure, and historic milestone. It’s being studied in schools. From the potent, mindful poem that nits the tracks together to the staggering compliment of featured artists to the meticulous, mellifluous arrangements which evoke everyone from Prince to Chuck D to McCoy Tyner, it’s a transcendent, transfixing masterpiece.