Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2015


Even though there were many great albums in 2015, the winner was clear. As such, I'm only going to include two runners-up, but you can see my full analysis of 2015 albums in an earlier article I wrote.

My first runner-up wasn't on my list of my favorite albums of 2015. I am ashamed to say I didn't hear about this artist until 2018 and thanks to my friends Zack and Erin. 

Tame Impala has been making music since 2007 and really reached a critical and commercial milestone with 2015's Currents. Tame Impala is really just the musical pseudonym for Kevin Parker, who writes, performs and produces sad, psychedelic music. On his first two albums, Parker had collaborators. Such was not the case with Currents, which is truly a product of just Parker. The sound of Currents is far more full of synthesizers than guitars, creating more of a dance sound than previous albums. There is an underlying theme to Currents of personal transition and growing older, as well as breaking up with an ill-suited lover. Parker poured himself into the album, obsessing over working on it and isolating himself for the cause. The work paid off. The album is full of meaning, complexity, and beauty. 

Kate Pierson has been a member of The B-52's since their formation in 1976, but she didn't release her first solo album until 2015's Guitars and Microphones. The album was produced by Tim Anderson and Sia (yes, that Sia). The songs are cowritten by Pierson and various people including Anderson, Sia, Dallas Austin, Sam Dixon, and Nick Valensi (on hiatus from The Strokes). 

Things begin with "Throw Down the Roses," a song Pierson describes as an upbeat, neo-punk riot grrrl song. It seems poppy to me but the premise is empowering, the narrator refusing to be a groupie as she's an artist in her own right.

"Mister Sister" serves as the album's lead single, and celebrates a drag queen finding her identity in the world of rigid gender roles. The bassline is the glue that holds the track together musically. Fred Armisen starred in the video.

"Bottoms Up" is my favorite. It's a straight-up bop with Valensi playing one of his signature rhythm guitar lines, the percussion pulling the song along.

Pierson's voice sounds young and vibrant. It's incredible to realize her actual age when she released this album. Each track adds something new to the table. The arrangement and production of the album is fantastic. I feel like this album didn't really get enough credit.

The album of 2015 for me was definitely Uptown Special by Mark Ronson.

Ronson's career has led him many places, several since Uptown Special. He's a DJ, he's a producer. His debut album Here Comes the Fuzz was primarily rap and hip-hop, while Version was loaded with British soul, brass instruments, and is (as the title implies) exclusively cover versions of other songs. His third album, Record Collection (as Mark Ronson and the Business International) contained some indie pop artists alongside electronic throwback beats and fantastic rap from Ghostface Killah, Q-Tip and Spank Rock.

For Uptown Special, Ronson continues to employ great rappers like Mystikal, as well as working with pop stars like Stevie Wonder and Bruno Mars and geniuses of psychedelic and synthesized music like the aforementioned Kevin Parker and Miike Snow's Andrew Wyatt. Author Michael Chabon contributed lyrics to the majority of the album, creating a literary element to Uptown Special that Ronson's previous work had lacked. Ronson and Chabon began working together when Ronson wrote Chabon a letter of recruitment after reading his book, Telegraph Avenue. Ronson realized while reading the book that Chabon had a deep knowledge of music. Chabon told The Observer of writing lyrics for the album "I will lean more towards the wistful, melancholy regretful note in my lyrics and Mark tends to favor the more optimistic lyrics - that tension, if you will, proved really fruitful." Uptown Special ebbs and flows, alternating between the smooth tracks that tell a story and the more upbeat tracks, but nothing is lost for this, only gained. 

Here in the states, everyone is familiar with the first single, "Uptown Funk," featuring Bruno Mars. I don't often make predictions because I realize my tastes are a little offbeat, but I predict that "Uptown Funk" will be one of the most well-remembered songs of the 2010s twenty plus years down the road. I am sure there are people who don't like it but I haven't met them. Whenever it comes on, people feel like dancing and despite regular airplay, it never seemed to get stale. It contains elements of funk, disco, pop, soul, boogie and Minneapolis sound. "Uptown Special" sat at the top of the American charts for fourteen weeks, and the U.K. charts for seven weeks. It became a worldwide phenomenon. The video for the song still sits at number seven on the most viewed videos of all time with 4.18 billion view, beating out the first video to reach a billion views, Psy's "Gangnam Style." "Uptown Funk" took home the Grammy for record of the year and best pop duo/group performance. The success of the song came after a great deal of work from Ronson, Mars, and Jeff Bhasker. They worked on the track for seven months, the work spanning three locations and so many takes at times that Ronson once passed out trying to perfect a guitar part.

The second single released was "Daffodils," which features Kevin Parker's dreamy vocals. Parker and Chabon developed the song around the idea of a fictional drug. Parker had to explain to Chabon what it was like to come down off of a drug, and used a song by The Streets as an explanation and an example of what he was trying to do. Chabon told NME of working with Parker on the lyrics, "He writes entire complete songs and here I was stepping into this groove that he had come up with. I felt nervous, but Kevin was very gracious. He didn't express any doubt or frustration that I was intruding."

Another track featuring a collaboration between Parker and Chabon is "Summer Breaking." It was also written with Ronson and Bhasker. Ronson said that the chords for the song came from his attempts to impress Bhasker. Ronson has identified "Summer Breaking" as his favorite song on the album. 

The final Parker vocal track (he played drums on several others) is "Leaving Los Feliz." Los Feliz is an affluent California neighborhood in which parties are common. The song is about an aging hipster who realizes he needs to stop going to the parties.

Bhasker really shines on "In Case of Fire," a song on which he takes lead vocals for the first time in his career. He also appears on the second of two Stevie Wonder songs that bookend the album, with the first ("Uptown's First Finale") seeing Wonder joined by Andrew Wyatt. "Uptown's First Finale" as a title is a play on the title of Wonder's 1974 album Fulfillingness' First Finale. Ronson's dream was to get Wonder on the track. He wrote a letter to Wonder's manager and sent the song hoping for a response. After a long wait before Ronson was told that Wonder liked the track and wanted to be on it. "Crack in the Pearl Pt. II" features not only vocals from Bhasker and Wonder, but Wonder plays a fabulous harmonica part. 

Andrew Wyatt has his hand in many songs as well. "Crack in the Pearl acts as the first part of the final song, while "Heavy and Rolling" comes just before said finale on the album. "Heavy and Rolling" utilized a bassline Wyatt wrote for an uncompleted xx remix. The title is taken from a NYC cabbie expression meaning that the driver has passengers and are on the job.

I can't leave Mystikal out. His track "Feel Right" is the only rap track on the album, and it utilizes his gruff, mildly comical style. Even though it's the only rap track, the funky backing track ensures that it fits with the rest of the album. Mystikal's flow on this track is a must-hear.

Finally, there is one track on the album with a singer who was a complete unknown. Ronson and Bhasker travelled through the deep south, visiting churches, nightclubs, bars, and community centers before they found the perfect vocalist at Mississippi State. Keyone Starr's voice soars. Typically Ronson has far more female collaborators, but Starr ends up being the only one on Uptown Special, making her performance stand out even more. 

With my sister Ivy at Tower Bridge
during our first trip to London, 2015.
I've been a big fan of Ronson's work ever since I heard his production on the Lily Allen-led version of "Oh My God." When "Uptown Funk" was being played everywhere, I couldn't have been more pleased. The album was an instant hit with me, and the perfect Summer album for 2015. I read Telegraph Avenue myself around that time, not realizing the connection at first. Once I did, "Summer Breaking" seemed to fit the mood of the book perfectly. I love it when anyone is able to successfully blend genres, which Ronson's DJ prowess makes him an expert at. Uptown Special blends more sounds than any other Ronson album, and still comes out as the most polished, coherent project. 

I'd heard of Miike Snow, and even listened to a couple of tracks, but didn't really get into them until the next year, but I appreciated Wyatt's work. I wouldn't become familiar with Tame Impala for a few years, but knew I liked Kevin Parker from his work on this album. Keyone Starr's voice blew me away.

All of the elements of this album come together to make it perfect. If you like "Uptown Funk" and haven't heard this album, that's your homework.

Leaderboard, please!

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album of 2016.

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