There are plenty of reasons why the annual rite of picking the best album of the year is arguably less relevant in this particular year than any other. Paradoxically, those same reasons might also make it more likely that we’ll read those lists.
Why do best-album lists seem especially divorced from reality in late 2015? Because a lot of our listening has shifted to streaming and that switch in turn affects how we listen. Consider this:
1. This was the year streaming generated more revenue for some music companies than downloading did.
2. Spotify remains streaming music’s biggest brand name.
3. Research at Universal Music Group, says one former employee, found that within a one-month period, fewer than 10 per cent of users of the free, ad-supported part of Spotify made it all the way through even one album.
Then why do those exercises in anointing the year’s best albums keep proliferating? (Don’t believe us? You can find links to a mind-boggling 300 or so such lists conveniently aggregated at ThatEricAlper.com.)
Well, if a big chunk of music fans are only going to listen to two or three albums over the course of the year, they no doubt want to cut down the potential pool of contenders as efficiently as possible.
Assuming that’s the case, here are the two albums that seem to pop up most often among the major list-makers:
To Pimp a Butterfly, the demanding, sonically ambitious third release by Kendrick Lamar, and Art Angels, the surprise fourth album by Vancouver-born Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Grimes.
In addition, every year has a consensus outlier, and 2015’s is undoubtedly Mbongwana Star, a seven-piece from the Congo whose thrilling debut full-length, From Kinshasa, drew a raft of five-star reviews from outlets as diverse as Drowned in Sound, NPR and The Guardian.
For those of you who, unlike some streaming-music users, have a capacity for more than three albums a year, other contenders who popped up on best-of lists over and over again included Sleater-Kinney’s comeback, No Cities to Love; Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear; Joanna Newsom’s Divers; Sufjan Stevens’ emotionally naked Carrie & Lowell; Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit; and Carly Rae Jepsen’s bubbly pop gem, Emotion.
Vinyl: Among the first releases of the new year is a vinyl-only box set of Eric Clapton’s peak 1970s output.
The Studio Album Collection— 1971-1980 brings together the seven solo albums Clapton cut for Polydor/RSO plus 1970’s collaborative Layla and Other Love Songs released under the Derek and the Dominos moniker.
While all eight will be pressed on 180-gram vinyl, only the self-titled debut (the one with “After Midnight”) and the Dominos’ album have been remastered specifically for this package. It’s due out Jan. 29.
Meanwhile, January will also bring the belated vinyl version of Grimes’ aforementioned best-of-2015 favourite, Art Angels.