Headphones: Favourite Albums of 2015

“‘If anybody comes around to find me. If anybody asks for me,’ she said. ‘Tell ’em all I’m in the deep end singing with this music in my head.'”  -Matt Nathanson, “Headphones”

I’ve discovered a lot of great music in 2015. I don’t listen to the radio at all, so most the music I discover comes from friends, family, TV series, and sometimes even fan videos. Through these avenues, I’ve heard some amazing music I probably wouldn’t have heard otherwise. As I’m living in a small town in a country where I don’t speak the language, I have a lot of time to myself. I find myself listening to music and reflecting on it – for better or worse – more than ever. Some of it has really helped me through hard times. Some of it has special memories attached. Some of it is just fun to listen to any day. This year has seen new music from old favourites, introduced me to new favourites, and moved me to the point of becoming a fan of some artists I only listened to casually before. With all this great music, it seems only appropriate to write about my favourite albums I’ve heard this year.

A few disclaimers: I’m not saying that any of these are the best albums, simply that they were the ones I’ve enjoyed the most this year. Not all of them are actually from 2015, but I heard all of them in full for the first time this year, and they are some of the ones that carried me through a year of many personal changes. I’m not including any EPs, as this list would probably be dominated by a couple artists already on it. Also, there’s not a definite ranking, though #1 is definitely my favourite.

Honourable mentions: I Forget Where We Were by Ben Howard and X by Ed Sheeran, to name a couple, were great albums but didn’t quite make the cut for one reason or another.

10. Made in the A.M. – One Direction

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Before you stop reading/disown me/think I’m a total joke, hear me out. The majority of this list has some pretty dark and different music on it. I love a lot of sad music. Sometimes, though, you just need a nice feel-good pop album. Made in the A.M. fits the bill. It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for British boy bands or that I am a One Direction fan. (Not a crazy one. I just enjoy their music.) One Direction gets a lot of flack for being a boy band, but many people don’t realise that they write a lot of their own music, and their sound has grown with them. I was admittedly worried when Zayn left, and I was even more worried when I heard “Drag Me Down” because I didn’t like it. It’s still easily my least favourite song on the album. However, they proved that no one can drag them down after all. Their sound has grown with them, and their voices sound better than ever. Zayn leaving paved the way for some of the other members to show their talents, particularly Louis, whose voice seems to have gotten bit rougher, making it much sexier. Some may argue that their influences shine through too much on this album, but at least they’re mostly good influences from classic rock. There’s no denying that “Hey Angel” sounds a lot like “Bittersweet Symphony.” Some songs are quite Beatles-esque. They’ve even managed to make “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory slightly less creepy, and that’s coming from someone who has never liked that film. One Direction has a lot of songs – not only on this album – that sound like other songs, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. As far as I’m concerned, this is a great album for when you’re in need of something a bit lighter or sweeter. No guilt needed.

Favourites: “Walking in the Wind,” “Infinity,” “I Want to Write You a Song,” “Olivia,” “If I Could Fly,” “Long Way Down,” and “Hey Angel.”

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“Walking in the Wind”

9. Hozier – Hozier

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This is probably the only other really well-known album on this list. Like most people, I first discovered Hozier with “Take Me to Church,” which deserves all the accolades it’s received. (It does not deserve to have me butcher it at noraebang, but I do it, anyway.) I never really bothered to listen to him, though, until I heard “Like Real People Do” on iZombie – best show of the year, by the way – and fell in love with it. Even then, it took some time for me to really listen to the rest of his work and enjoy it. I liked “Someone New” and “From Eden,” but it actually took months to download the full album. His music is, thankfully, not like everything else out there, particularly the rest of the top 40. I’ve always liked some blues, but it’s not the most popular genre and is kind of an acquired taste. There’s a reason that people have flocked to Hozier’s music, though, and this album in its entirety shows why. His soulful voice is mesmorizing, and his lyrics are meaningful. It might take some time to grow on you, as it did me, but it’s worth it once you get there.

Side note: If you like “Like Real People Do,” check out Sabrina Carpenter’s cover of it on YouTube. She’s an extremely talented young artist and does a beautiful job with it.

Favourites: “Like Real People Do,” “Take Me to Church,” “From Eden,” “Someone New,” “Work Song,” “Foreigner’s God,” “Cherry Wine,” and “Sedated.”

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“Like Real People Do”

8. Hospice – The Antlers

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This album was recommended to me by a friend when I mentioned that I loved the hauntingly beautiful “Kettering” after hearing it in a pivotal scene on Chuck. I was told that I had to listen to this album on a rainy night and read the lyrics at the same time. I also chose to listen to it with earbuds to block out other distractions. My twisted friend said it would make me want to curl up in the foetal position and die. At the time, I thought that was a bit extreme, but I did it as promised, and I now understand why he said that. The requirements set the dark, depressing mood for this album.

Hospice is about exactly what the title says, but it’s a concept album about so much more than just hospice. It’s about a hospice worker dealing (or not dealing) with his patient/wife who has bone cancer and is slipping away, mentally and physically. It’s about an incredibly unhealthy relationship. It’s about how, even though she is abusive at times, he still loves her and cares for her. It’s about the denial he feels that this is really happening, as evidenced in “Kettering” with lines like, “I didn’t believe them when they called you a hurricane thunderclap” (what a beautifully tragic and poetic term) and “I didn’t believe them when they told me that there was no saving you.”

I’ve worked with many hospice patients in my career, and this album is – in a word – real. Although it appears to be a fictional album, it might as well be a true story. It’s raw, heartbreaking, and moving in ways that I’ve rarely experienced with music. Multiple references to Sylvia Plath in “Sylvia” and “Thirteen” have probably never been more appropriate in music. The cacophony of sounds actually fits the tone, the desperation, of the whole album. I cried through the whole thing, and it took at least a week to shake it from my mind and longer to be able to listen to it again. I had to write out my thoughts about each song and talk about them with my friend in order to escape this album. I think the line “All the while I’ll know we’re fucked and not getting unfucked soon” is also a good way to describe the effect Hospice can have. You will feel as though you’re not getting unfucked by this album anytime soon. If you like happy music, Hospice is not for you. If you like to think and feel and be as miserable as my demented friend and I apparently are, you’ll want to hear this. When you do, be sure to listen to it on a rainy night with earbuds to block out other noise, read the lyrics at the same time, and brace yourself for the despair. You’ll thank/hate me later.

Favourites: “Kettering,” “Bear,” “Two,” and “Epilogue.”

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“Kettering”

7. White Lighter – Typhoon

Like many of the entries on this list, I first heard Typhoon through TV and movies. I’ve loved the mysterious “Prosthetic Love” from the album since it was in the Veronica Mars movie. There are other Typhoon songs from TV shows that I liked that made me decide to listen to more of their work. They remind me a bit of Arcade Fire crossed with someone else, though I can’t quite place who. This is particularly true on the intense opener “Artificial Light.” Admittedly, this is one album where I haven’t read a lot of the lyrics, but the ones I have read are quite brilliant. I think the reason I haven’t read the lyrics as much as I usually do is because this is one of the few bands where I often focus more on the music itself. Typhoon is an eleven-piece band, and there is a lot going on in their music. I like to pick it apart because I can often hear something new in the background that I didn’t notice before. Its one fault with this, however, is that the songs can sometimes sound the same or some are not as memorable. With the exception of a few, I have a hard time seeing the names of them and remembering how they sound, even if I know I like them. That said, I am completely and utterly in love with “Post Script,” the gorgeous closing track, which quickly made its way onto my Every Day Songs playlist. I have a feeling this song will be a favourite song years from now, as I’m a sucker for slow songs with violins and incredibly sweet lyrics. “It won’t be necessary to love me unconditionally” is pretty much the most romantic line I’ve ever heard and my new dream line to have someone say to me someday. This album is worth a listen or two just for this song, but I highly recommend the whole thing.

Favourites: “Post Script,” “Prosthetic Love,” “Artificial Light,” “Possible Deaths,” and “Young Fathers.”

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“Prosthetic Love”

6. Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens

I’ve always sort of casually listened to Sufjan Stevens in that I liked the songs I knew but never really thought much to listen to more of his music. I remember being on Pinterest and seeing a picture someone had made with lyrics from  “The Only Thing” from this album, and I liked them and downloaded it. It wasn’t until I went to Japan with my friend, however, that I decided to listen to more of his music, specifically this album. We liked to go to this spot by the river in Kyoto and play songs for each other. He played “Death With Dignity” (and possibly others from this album) for me, and the vibe provided the perfect soundtrack to a moment I think we’ll both always cherish. Sufjan Stevens masterfully juxtaposes sad lyrics about his life and his mother’s death with simple (if only on the surface), happy-sounding music throughout Carrie & Lowell, creating a deeply moving record. If you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, this album could help you find some peace. Carrie & Lowell is definitely not an album to listen to when you’re trying to get pumped, but if you just want to chill and hear some great music, you can’t go wrong with it.

Favourites: “Death With Dignity,” “The Only Thing,” “Eugene,” “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” “Carrie & Lowell,” and “Blue Bucket of Gold.”

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“John My Beloved”

5. Show Me Your Fangs – Matt Nathanson

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Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a massive Matt Nathanson fan and have been for over 10 years. I wrote about him in my post about my favourite albums of all time and stated that I prefer his older music because it is slower and bleaker. However, I still love Matt Nathanson in all forms, and Show Me Your Fangs doesn’t disappoint. It’s a nice combination of Sad Matt and Happy Matt. Matt Nathanson is friends with my favourite musician Andrew McMahon, and they’ve toured together and written songs together that (sadly) have yet to surface. That influence comes through with the piano on “Bill Murray,” which also has a slight trace of Train, while still sounding like completely Matt Nathanson. The song is a gorgeous number about a dream in which he’s friends with Bill Murray. He travels the world with Bill Murray, who gives him advice to go after the one he loves. What results is a super sweet song, which is definitely one of my favourites on this record and has the potential to become one of my favourite Matt Nathanson songs. “Disappear” is another favourite, as I think we can all relate to the lyrics “I can make good turn amazing, then disappear” at some point in our lives. Show Me Your Fangs is the perfect combination of the deep Matt Nathanson I’ve known and loved for years and the upbeat, fun Matt Nathanson he shows in concert. There are always songs on his records that I like more after hearing them live, and “Headphones” is one of those. It was released long before this album came out, and I never appreciated it enough until I saw him perform it in 2014. It became one of songs of summer 2015, as I felt I could relate to it again with lines like, “I got all I need. I feel invincible with my headphones on.” Indeed, I do. Thanks for the reminder, Matt.

Favourites: “Bill Murray,” “Disappear,” “Headphones,” “Shouting,” and “Giants.”

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I love this line. “Giants”

4. Like Us – Jon McLaughlin

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Like Matt Nathanson, Jon McLaughlin has been a favourite artist for years. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him live several times, and he always puts on a great show. I’m a sucker for artists who play piano, and Jon McLaughlin is an incredible pianist with a beautiful voice. I was keen when I heard he was releasing Like Us, and my excitement grew when I heard some pre-released tracks. Jon McLaughlin is also one of those artists I listen to when I just want to relax, as his music is usually pretty mellow, but he’s also one I can listen to anytime. His music might not be what some would consider genius, as he usually writes about love/relationships, but he writes about real life and has yet to disappoint me.

Like Us explores the classical pianist side of him as much as it does the pop singer. It opens with the ethereal number “Before You,” then follows with the rather jazzy “Down In History” that showcases more of his skills on the piano. I also love the simple “whoa” part of “Down In History” because it reminds me of a lot Andrew McMahon. (I honestly like Jon McLaughlin’s voice much better, though.) It makes for an interesting combination, and it elevates the song to another level. The same jazziness can be heard on “More Than Me.” Another highlight is the upbeat, hilarious “Don’t Mess With My Girl,” which is accompanied by an equally funny video. The imagery of a “150-pound angry dude losing his mind and rocking your world” shows how funny Jon is, as anyone who has seen him live already knows but is rarely seen in his music. He then brings it back down a notch with another favourite, “I Want You Anyway,” in which he croons about knowing he’s not good enough for the girl and that she could hurt him, but he wants it all, anyway. He sings, “The way the light hangs off you. I never stood a chance. You changed every plan I had with one glance.” This song is romantic enough to bring the listeners to their knees. It’s more of the signature Jon McLaughlin listeners have come to know and love. “Thank God” changes the mood yet again, as it is reminiscent of newer Jason Mraz (but better, sorry to say) while retaining Jon McLaughlin’s own sound. My favourite, perhaps, is “Let Go.” Everything from the piano and music to the lyrics comparing the relationship to “two spoiled fickle addicts trying to walk away” and begging her to let go to his perfect voice is reminiscent of his older music. This song could almost be on Forever If Ever (or Promising Promises, as it was released under another label), my favourite album of his, and it would fit perfectly. It’s definitely become one of my favourite songs of his. The last song “Walk Away” is the perfect, slow closer, as he sings the line, “Like an atheist all dressed up in his Sunday best, we’re going through the motions, so emotionless.” Perfect.

This entire album is simply amazing from start to finish and only makes me wish I could be in the States to see Jon McLaughlin live yet again. I can only imagine that these songs are even better live, as he sings with so much emotion. I’ve never really understood why Jon McLaughlin isn’t more famous than he is, but I also kind of feel like he’s one of the industry’s best kept secrets.

Favourites: “Let Go,” “Before You,” “I Want You Anyway,” “Don’t Mess With My Girl,” and “Down In History.”

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“I Want You Anyway”

3. Yes/No/Grey. – Gangs of Ballet

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When my friend recommended this South African band to me, I was instantly interested by their name alone. I love ballet and thought the idea of there being gangs in such a graceful art was funny. Thankfully, they lived up to their awesome name by making even more awesome music. The haunting “Hello Sweet World” was the first song I heard, and after listening to clips of the other tracks, I knew the whole album would be incredible. Yes/No/Grey. has been pretty consistently in rotation since March, particularly my favourites.

The opening song “All These Things” is an energetic track that quickly sets the pace for the rest of the album. It reminds me a bit of old Fuel, along with someone else that I, once again, can’t place. After the first three tracks, “Don’t Let Me Go” brings in a lighter vibe as a sweet love song. Fair warning that this song can create earworms that, well, won’t let you go, not that you’d want them to. With the percussion, it’s nearly impossible to listen to this song without feeling happy. The uplifting sound continues with “Daydream,” as he sings, “We were stolen away in a daydream. Nothing else is real so long as you’re here…”

The tone immediately drops from dreamlike to depressing, however, with my personal favourite “Can’t Do This On My Own.” It’s absolutely perfect. Again, it reminds me of another song that I really love, but I can’t figure out what, and it’s a brilliant song in its own right. My heart drops every time I hear, “My love is undivided… My love can’t go to somebody else.” I think I’ve mentioned before how I love songs that start out slow and build to an intense finish. This song seamlessly goes back and forth between the two, and it creates a memorable effect. I’m completely in love with it.

The happiness picks up again with “Pass Me By,” which can easily be paired with “Don’t Let Me Go” and “Daydream.” The sound returns for the rest of the album. Yes/No/Grey. is a pleasant mixture of rock and pop that makes it difficult to really pigeonhole their sound or draw definite comparisons to other bands. This makes them even more awesome, in my opinion. They are also one of the reasons I had to limit my choices to including only complete albums, as their EP, simply titled EP, would be on here otherwise. Their whole collection is definitely worth checking out, and you really can’t go wrong with any of it.

Favourites: “Can’t Do This On My Own,” “Hello Sweet World,” “Don’t Let Me Go,” “Daydream,” and “Pass Me By.”

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“Don’t Let Me Go.” It should actually be: “I’ll be safe here in your arms.”

2. March Fires – Birds of Tokyo

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I first heard the Australian band Birds of Tokyo when “Lanterns” was on the TV show Legit. I don’t remember the scene, but the song stuck with me. (As did many others from this underrated series.) When I moved to Korea, I listened to “Lanterns” on the way to the airport, as it is such an anthemic song. It seemed almost too appropriate with the line, “In darkness I leave for a place I’ve never seen. It’s been calling out to me. That is where I should be.” Some time later, a good friend told me he listened to the whole record after I posted “Lanterns” on Facebook and that the whole album was divine, so I decided to check it out. I’m glad I did because every song is dynamic. The ethereal opener “Liquid Arms” gives a good impression to what the rest of March Fires has in store. The whole album feels like one big anthem, without crossing into cheesy, pushy, or cliche. March Fires flows well, and there’s really not a bad song on the whole album. I’ve seen some reviews that argued that the album is a little too neat, but I disagree. The real strength of March Fires lies not in the production but in the lyrical content, which is true poetry at times. “The Others” is a favourite, as he contemplates, “I’m trying not to notice that I’m never in the moment” and questioning, “Am I about to lose myself again?” The lyrics of the entire song are relatable to anyone, particularly those in their twenties or thirties, who are trying to find their place and balance in life. On “Boy,” he promises, “Even on cold days, my door’s always open where grey is enough light to colour my world.” March Fires, in general, is about feeling alone in a crazy world where none of us are really alone because we’re all in it together and going through the same things. (“Don’t spend your last day waiting, fearing you’re the only one ’cause we’re all in this riot. We riot as one.”) Birds of Tokyo gives us a beautiful, empowering record that will not soon be forgotten.

Favourites: “Lanterns,” “Liquid Arms,” “The Others,” “When The Night Falls Quiet,” and “Boy.”

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“Lanterns”

1. The Fire Inside – Luke Sital-Singh

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People call me a hipster because I don’t like it when things I like get really famous or popular. Once I decide something is “mine,” I get selfish, and it’s hard for me to share it with the world, even if there’s that little voice in my head that says, “Everyone in the world needs to hear this, and anyone who doesn’t like it has terrible taste.” I get very protective of the things I love the most. Luke Sital-Singh falls along these contradicting lines. I feel like everyone I deem worthy (Yes, I’m a snob) should listen to him, but I also feel like I’m not ready to share him with anyone incapable of appreciating him as much as I do. This list would be incomplete without what is easily the best album I’ve heard this year: The Fire Inside.

I first heard Luke Sital-Singh last year on a couple of TV shows. “Nothing Stays the Same” and “Bottled Up Tight” were both on Red Band Society, and “Fail For You” was on The Wrong Mans. I loved all of them, and eventually, I smartly decided to check out more of his music. Thankfully, the rest of The Fire Inside lives up to those songs. I listen to it on a regular basis (several times a month, maybe even a week) and never get tired of it. I also noticed that it’s the perfect complement for my train journeys, so it’s become something of a tradition to listen to it whenever I’m travelling. Simply put, The Fire Inside is a breathtakingly beautiful, profound album. Everything from the music to the lyrics to the vocals is just brilliant. I really don’t even have the words to explain how much I love it, but I can honestly say that it will likely be in a future list of favourite albums of all time.

The Fire Inside opens with “Nothing Stays the Same,” the first song I think I heard. Again, this is one of those songs everyone can identify with at some point in life. There’s a quiet intensity to this song that makes it absolutely perfect. The bridge is one of the most powerful I’ve ever heard, as it builds on the intensity to flawless completion. I won’t even spoil it by posting the full bridge, but several of my favourite lines from the album come from it, including, “We all show signs of greatness that we hope that someone sees.” It’s such a true sentiment. Listen to the song, and you won’t be disappointed. (Unless you have terrible taste, in which case, I’m afraid there’s no hope for you.)

It seems it would be difficult to top such a strong opener, but Luke Sital-Singh’s talent shines throughout the entire record. He sings with a passion, almost a desperation, that is missing in so much music these days. Whether it’s the gentle encouragement and understanding of “Nearly Morning” (“When no one understands you’re breaking ground, you’re not the only one who can’t be found”), the pleading “Lilywhite” (“Rip out all of my excuses; tell me softly who you’re hiding from”), the haunting and heartwrenching “Fail For You” (“By the look in your eye, the only thing I couldn’t do was fail for you”), or the more positive and upbeat “We Don’t Belong” (“You don’t belong, but we don’t belong together. Yeah, you feel alone; we can feel alone together.”), you can’t listen to this album without feeling something.

As with Hospice, I had a hard time shaking The Fire Inside but in an entirely different way. When I heard Hospice, I had a difficult time listening to it again. The Fire Inside is just so brilliant and beautiful that I don’t want to stop listening to it and often find myself listening to it over and over. There are no skippable songs. I’m planning to make a fan video for “Benediction” – and possibly other songs of his – about a certain TV couple I ship hard because it fits them too perfectly. There’s every chance that it will break my heart while I’m making it (there will be tears), but that just shows how much this album moved me and how strongly it can make you feel. If you listen to The Fire Inside, there’s a good chance you’ll be like me and start listening to all of Luke Sital Singh’s other beautiful music. You’ll “cry your eyes out, fill your lungs up” when you do, but you will never regret it.

Favourites: “Nothing Stays the Same,” “Nearly Morning,” “Fail For You,” “Lilywhite,” “We Don’t Belong,” and “Benediction.” There’s not a single bad song.

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“Benediction”

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