Top 10 albums of 2015: 6-10

| Senior Cadenza Editor

Senior Cadenza editor Mark Matousek shares his picks for the best albums of 2015. Check back Monday for part two.

10. Grimes – “Art Angels”

Compromise gets a bad rap in art, and it is thought to be the province of hacks and cowards. But compromise can bring out the best in artists who work through competing impulses. Claire Boucher, who uses the stage name Grimes, draws from hallucinatory electronic music and top-40 pop. Her previous album, “Visions,” leaned toward the former; “Art Angels,” her most recent release, shifts closer to the latter.

On a podcast reviewing 2015’s dominant music narratives, New York Times critic Ben Ratliff identified a trend toward maximalism—in ideas, album lengths and arrangements—that he deemed “muchness.” In Boucher’s case, this “muchness” is not a marker of scale so much as an opportunity to exert control. While “Art Angels” runs a reasonable 49 minutes, Boucher flips through personas and sounds like matches, letting each burn for a moment before tossing them aside. That the album doesn’t fold under its own weight is a testament to the clarity of her vision.

The grinding, bleeping, roaring, twinkling excess of “Art Angels” achieves a lightness in spite of itself, a product of careful arrangement and savvy instinct. Layered vocals bump into and slide past each other, characters slip in and out of the frame, and Boucher sits at the center of it all, popular music’s next great ringmaster.

9. Sufjan Stevens – “Carrie & Lowell”

The “return to roots” album is, perhaps, the most spurious marketing ploy in the music industry. It is almost exclusively used by artists who are desperate to reclaim their fanbases and willing to renounce all but their most universally beloved works to do so. It rarely works.

So when Sufjan Stevens, one of this century’s most brilliant and eccentric songwriters, released his first full-length album in almost five years, “Carrie & Lowell,” and it was billed as a return to his folk roots, I bristled. Following his most restless album, “Age of Adz,” I hoped he would press onward into unexplored territory and embrace his wildest impulses. With his (or at least his label’s) “return to roots” posture, he seemed to have lost his edge.

I should have trusted him. Written and recorded in the wake of his distant mother’s (she left Stevens when he was a year old) death, “Carrie & Lowell” is Stevens’ attempt to reconcile his mother’s lifelong absence with the heartache he felt after her rapid demise from stomach cancer. The album collects fragments of memory and personal crisis, building an elliptical narrative that speaks to the inscrutable nature of grief.

It works because Stevens never falls into empty gimmicks. Time and again, he has matched ideas with their most potent musical settings: an album about the history of Illinois receives sweeping orchestral arrangements. One recorded after a severe illness sets electronic and acoustic instruments firing off each other at oblique angles. Here, he strips himself bare and uses a tired marketing strategy to lean into unthinkable pain, pulling off another dazzling transformation in a career full of them.

8. METZ – “II”

As with any musical tool, the studio is an instrument that can hide or amplify an artist’s strengths. Too many punk bands lose their nerve in the booth, following the notion that, while the live show may thrive on punishing noise, the studio recording must be more “musical,” embracing larger dynamic ranges and showing off melodies (or whatever).

METZ doesn’t fall for that swill. Its first album was loud and rude and so is its second—cheekily titled “II.” Each vocal, guitar and drum is calibrated for maximum impact, producing concentrated blasts of musical violence that fall somewhere between a jackhammer and chainsaw. The volume never dips below prison riot, and the force is such that a blood vessel or two must have popped in the process.

At 29 minutes, “II” is the same length as the band’s self-titled debut. If the band felt the pressure to expand its range, you don’t hear it. More an extension than a progression from its predecessor, “II” proves METZ won’t hesitate to pummel you into submission. May the band never lose its bite.

7. Deafheaven – “New Bermuda”

Deafheaven is, ostensibly, a metal band (though many of the genre’s more puritanical fans insist otherwise), but it borrows guitar tones from across the spectrum of rock music and its many offshoots. The intensity with which the band digs into these tones on its third album, “New Bermuda,” recalls ecological phenomena (hurricanes, monsoons, rain, sleet, hail) more than genre tropes. Such is the elemental fury the band builds toward on the album’s five songs, each of which is more than eight minutes long.

But as much as “New Bermuda” embodies nature’s wrath, it never fails to offer relief. Metal is often considered one-dimensional by outsiders, prone to expressing varying shades of anger and little else. Deafheaven understands the power and necessity of contrast and for every crowded and abrasive crescendo, the band follows with a sparse and tuneful comedown. This seesaw movement often occurs multiple times within a single song, creating a whiplash effect between tones, moods and textures.

For the careful listener, lead singer George Clarke’s lyrics cycle through disappointment, confinement, disconnection and other existential concerns, but they are largely unintelligible, and comprehension is not necessary to feel the album’s peaks and valleys in full. The band speaks in musical rather than literary terms and powerfully so. “New Bermuda” hurts on impact, but like any proper catharsis, it intensifies feeling in and outside of its boundaries.

6. FIDLAR – “Too”

Between Los Angeles punk band FIDLAR’s first and second albums, singer-guitarist Zac Carper stared down his demons and kicked a number of addictions, heroin the nastiest among them. The drug killed his pregnant girlfriend in 2013, shocking Carper into self-reflection.

“Too” is, therefore, the band’s quarter-life crisis. Where its self-titled debut reveled in bumped lines and ripped bowls, “Too” considers the consequences of self-destruction, without abandoning the band’s signature petulance. “I figured out when I got sober that life just sucks when you get older,” Carper sneers on “Sober.”

The genius of “Too” is that Carper and his bandmates realize personal growth and bile aren’t mutually exclusive. That resistance gives the album its edge, which Carper and Elvis Kuehn (the band’s other primary songwriter) use to sharpen their sticky melodies. For all of their gestures toward sloppiness and indifference, Carper and Kuehn possess a sneaky discipline. The hooks come loud, fast and tart while wrapped in tidy packaging.

Like Green Day crossed with Drive Like Jehu, the band embraces pop form and punk spirit, resolving the genres’ seeming contradictions with a smirk and a shrug. On “Too,” FIDLAR has it both ways, moving toward adulthood while blowing spitballs every step of the way.

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