Atwood Magazine’s Unanticipated Albums of 2015

Unanticipated Albums of 2015

Back in mid-2015, every self-respecting music magazine published its own hotly anticipated albums list for the remainder of the year. Boasting everything from Rihanna’s ANTI to Kanye’s still-TBA project (we know he’s got one), these lists offered baseless speculations; rather than focusing on the moment, they targeted an unknown future, using big words and colorful pictures to escape the fact that they, in fact, had no idea what they were talking about.

In response to this, Atwood Magazine began developing our own “Unanticipated Albums” list: The 2015 musical releases we never saw coming. From independent artists we had never before heard of, to headliners we’re ashamed of listening to on a daily basis, this is a collection of records we had no anticipation of spinning back in January 2015.

A year is a long time, however, and the past fifty-two weeks have seen the release of many amazing albums. This year also saw the global transition to release days on Fridays, which has subsequently turned the weekend – rather than Mondays or Tuesdays – into a period of musical discovery.

Fifty-two weeks boils down to many major label and independent releases, and 2015 seems to have been an exceptionally good year when it comes to unanticipated music – whatever that means. By no means do we claim this list to be definitive – there are many amazing 2015 releases we likely missed – but as far as good new music goes, this list captures 2015’s surprises, as well as discoveries. Without further ado, we are proud to present Atwood Magazine’s Unanticipated Albums of 2015! – Mitch Mosk

Oh Wonder - Oh Wonder

Oh Wonder

Oh Wonder (Republic Records)

Yes, it’s a magnificent debut album, but for those of us who followed Oh Wonder over the past year, the self-titled Oh Wonder feels much more like a greatest hits compilation – in part, because it is! In September 2014, Oh Wonder began releasing one song a month, for an entire year via SoundCloud. What began as an innocent, if not ambitious songwriting project became one of the most blogged about artists of 2015; in the span of twelve months, UK songwriting duo Oh Wonder signed a major label deal, booked a slew of sold-out shows, and released their library of songs as a debut album – effectively reaching their goal, and then some! Heartfelt lyrics, delicate instrumentation, and deep meaning have always been the cornerstones of Oh Wonder’s music: Songs like the vivid “Livewire,” the rhythmic “Technicolour Beat,” and the solemn “Drive” exhibit Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West’s multi-dimensional mix of R&B, minimalist indie, singer/songwriter and electronic influences. Both Josephine and Anthony assume co-lead singing roles on every track, giving each song a chilling dual focus from both the female and male perspectives. Their songs are delicate and human, and served as a perfect anchor to humanity in the chaos that was 2015. – Mitch Mosk

Communion - Years & Years

Communion

Years & Years (Polydor)

British electro-pop group Years & Years is already something of an Atwood favorite, garnering two articles within two months, but it’s not for nothing: the group’s debut LP, Communion, serves as an invigorating and enthralling example of effervescent rhythm paired with unique vocals and palatable lyrics. Communion is an empyreal record with distinctly quixotic and harmonious sounds, and only proves Years & Years’ worth within their genre. Years & Years offer up a freshness that is entirely unique, while still keeping true to their electro-pop, alt-R&B roots. Their sexy, synth-y sounds allow for the group to create something truly captivating, and Communion is nothing short of that. From ballads to bangers, Years & Years have ultimately mastered their craft. As Mitch stated back in early July when the album first debuted: Communion will have us dancing for Years & Years– Maggie McHale

Midnight - Grace Potter

Midnight

Grace Potter (Hollywood Records)

When an artist makes the decision to step away from the safe haven of their band and into the limelight of a solo career, they assume the risk of making or breaking the rest of their musical career. For some artists, this journey into the spotlight has proven to be a massive success. Gwen Stefani’s hiatus from No Doubt, Justin Timberlake’s venture from *NSYNC, and Fergie’s side project from the Black Eyed Peas were all hits in the public eye and boosted their names to stardom. For other artists, like Joe Jonas from the Jonas Brothers, solo success is not in the cards for them. Whether due to too drastic a change in the musical style that their original fans had come to know and love – or even not enough growth and artistic development that leaves their fans desiring more – this kind of risk is a hit or miss scenario, and one that Grace Potter was eager and ready to take on in her latest album Midnight. Departing from the frontwoman position of her band, The Nocturnals, Potter’s edgy gypsy-rock sound is still present in Midnight. However, with hooks and choruses crafted in a more mainstream direction, her sound is now suitable for a wider, and even younger audience of blues and rock ‘n’ roll lovers. Still vintage and with every ounce of soul one can expect from a Grace Potter record, the risks she takes in her career will pay off as she continues to accumulate more new fans in the future. – Ethan Germann

 

Chaos and the Calm - James Bay

Chaos and the Calm

James Bay (Republic Records)

While soulful English singer-songwriter James Bay isn’t quite a household name, his debut album Chaos and the Calm sets him on the path to making it big. With a voice resembling James Morrison and twinges of Bruce Springsteen evident in each guitar strum, Bay takes his songs in the cutting direction. Chaos presents a perfect arrangement of enticing melodies that take the listener on a musical journey. Bay proves he has the pipes for ballads as he croons on the heartfelt track “Let It Go,” and then lets his voice burst with passion on “If You Ever Want to Be In Love.” Overall, Chaos and the Calm is the rare gem of an album where every single track is stunning – where soaring melodies and rhythmic beats are expertly executed. Bay takes you on a passionate journey that tugs on your heartstrings, making you fall in love with love. Bay proves to be a game changer in 2015, and with a Brit Awards “Critic’s Choice” under his belt (and rightfully so) proving he is a force to be reckoned with. Fans of Hozier and John Mayer will appreciate this folk-inspired, alternative rock record. – Natalie Harmsen

Religion - Howard

Religion

Howard (Fashion People Records)

Howard’s independently-released debut album Religion is most certainly an unanticipated hit record from this year, and one that deserves another year’s worth of attention if I have any say. The band’s hypnotizing music perfectly exemplifies the seemingly oxymoronic “folktronica” genre, which defines itself as the blend of folk and electronic music influences. Thankfully, the ’65 Newport Folk Festival is far enough behind us at this point (it only took fifty years). Howard’s musical tapestry is inviting, engaging listeners while also forcing them to open their minds to new sounds and musical phrases. Yet as dark and mysterious as opener “Falling” and title song “Religion” present themselves, single “Money Can’t Buy” takes the cake as the ultimate musical dustbowl, offering an eclectic aural display that binds acoustic, folk, and electronic music together in perfectly seductive harmony. It may not be the most upbeat of records, but Religion will transfix you in a trance-like sway. – Mitch Mosk

Emotion - Carly Rae Jepsen

Emotion

Carly Rae Jepsen (School Boy / Interscope)

Almost doomed to be a one-hit wonder from the start, Carly Rae Jepsen pushed forward and became more than the “Call Me Maybe” girl by adding layers and complexity to the usual vapidness of pop music. With Emotion, Jepsen built the ’80s-inspired pure pop album of our dreams. The beauty of Emotion, and Jepsen, is the willingness to never compromise integrity but yet still be relatable at the center of it all. She’s confident in her statements (“I Really Like You”) but still questions her true feelings with shyness and insecurity (“Your Type”). Jepsen has proved not only that she’s more than capable of writing the biggest song of the last decade, but also that she can produce more delectable tracks that are perfect for the masses and critics alike. Not bad for the “Call Me Maybe” girl. – April Salud

Momentary Lapse of Happily - Adult Mom

Momentary Lapse of Happily

Adult Mom (Tiny Engines)

When Adult Mom’s new record dropped this summer, it may not have been a shock for the Bandcamp aficionados, but for the rest of us, Steph Knipe and company were a revelation. Written after three bad breakups, Momentary Lapse of Happily finds Knipe asking a universal post-relationship question: How can I be me again? Front-to-back the record is filled with great, fundamental pop songs, heightened by the sharpness of the lyrical point-of-view. Knipe’s rich voice overlays an unpretentious set up of guitar bass and drums, and evokes maximum pathos in negotiating queerness, self-definition, and self-respect. The lyrics on “Lose/Recover” perfectly sum the album up: “I thought I lost love/Love does what it does/I thought I lost me/But there I was.” – Ross Finney

I Love You, Honeybear - Father John Misty

I Love You, Honeybear

Father John Misty (Sub Pop)

Father John Misty, otherwise known as Joshua Tillman, the drummer of Fleet Foxes, has been brilliantly crafting tunes for years. It was when Misty dropped his sophomore album I Love You, Honeybear in February 2015, however, that there was an instant, tangible feeling of, “Oh, yes; this is exactly what we’ve all been waiting for.” Father John Misty is truly the voice of the Gen Y epoch, to the point where it completely transcends Gen Y altogether and fundamentally affects and relates to the other generations as well. It creates and fosters relatable moments to which the listener connects and feels attached. I Love You, Honeybear accurately and sincerely showcase real life in all of its monotonous glory, and each track is wonderfully remarkable, distinctive, and significant when lamenting (or maybe even perhaps celebrating?) monotony in all of its mundane greatness. – Maggie McHale

VHS - X Ambassadors

VHS

X Ambassadors (KidinaKorner)

Whether you’re feeling “Gorgeous,” like “Renegades” or like Indiana Jones (“Hang On”), X Ambassadors have a song for you. KidinaKorner’s secret weapon was unleashed earlier this year in the form of VHS, the band’s debut full-length album – and is it quite the endeavor. VHS, much like the device it’s named after, feels in many ways like a relic from a bygone age – however, quite unlike the Video Home System, X Ambassadors’ debut gives new life to modern alternative rock, offering fresh licks and riffs inspired by rock music’s classics. From radio smash “Renegades” to album ender “Naked,” VHS offers 45 solid minutes of singalong, crisp-around-the-edges alt-rock that soars to great heights, but is not afraid of dips, either. X Ambassadors come out stronger and bolder than nearly any contemporary in the genre – except perhaps, for fellow labelmate Imagine Dragons, who have a own cameo in one of VHS’s strangest songs, “Fear.” Presented as if it were an actual VHS tape, with short 10- and 30-second long interludes that sound like recordings from the boys’ youth, VHS is a musical marvel – a powerful testament to rock music’s chameleonic, everlasting nature that flows naturally and feels both homegrown and authentic. – Mitch Mosk

Compton: A Soundtrack

Dr. Dre (Aftermath/Interscope)

This record can either be labeled “Dr. Dre’s third album” or “Compton: A Soundtrack.” That distinction completely changes whether it can be considered “one of the most anticipated rap albums ever” or “the most unanticipated album of 2015.” Dr. Dre’s third album has had a constant presence in the rumor mill for over a decade; in 2004, producer Scott Storch claimed it was near completion and would be “the most advanced rap album, musically and lyrically, we’ll probably ever have a chance to listen to.” However, the record Storch was describing, and which would ultimately become notorious as one of the greatest false promises in rap history, was Detox. This was the supposed title of Dre’s third album and was initially planned for release in the mid-2000’s. A half-generation later, Detox had still not been released, and was widely considered to be an obsolete prospect. At the start of 2015, no one could have reasonably predicted that the wait for Dr. Dre’s third album would be over within a few months’ time, only now it would be under the title Compton: A Soundtrack rather than Detox. Yet over the summer, Dr. Dre announced that Detox had indeed been scrapped and that this alternative record would take its place. It was out in a couple of weeks with the total surprise of that announcement still perfectly vivid. For that reason, Compton: A Soundtrack gets my vote for being the most unanticipated album of 2015 and, indeed, one of the most unanticipated surprise releases of any album in recent popular music history. – Josh Weiner

For Life - Phases

For Life

PHASES (Warner Bros. Records)

In the often homogenous world of synth-pop, it can become all too easy to fall prey to being “just like the others.” This is not true, however, in the case of LA-based PHASES, whose debut release For Life proves that synth-pop can be alluring, it can be refreshing, and it can be addicting. For Life exemplifies an admirable musicality, influenced heavily by ’80s electro-pop grooves. Its lyrics deal with love lost and found, and each track remains strong in its own right. Though occasionally repetitive in nature, the album never deters from a rhythmic purity that feels honest and invigorating. The LP allows for the group to firmly plant themselves within the genre, and ultimately harbors a freshness that is truly exquisite. PHASES and For Life have taken synth-pop and turned it on its head, subsequently squashing any preconceived ideas about the genre or what it “should be.” – Maggie McHale

White Water - The Slow Show

White Water – The Slow Show

White Water

The Slow Show (Haldern Pop Recordings)

Rob Goodwin’s deep voice echoes throughout the ethereal, colorfully layered compositions of The Slow Show’s debut. Warm, brooding textures arise in the form of orchestral arrangements and choral flurries. Minimalism meets opulence and the two melt together in an organic fusion. Darkness and light gracefully collide like long-lost lovers. White Water’s volatility reflects the rawest aspects of the human experience: Belonging; Suffering; Belief; Celebration; Loneliness; Compassion; Regret; Death; Birth. The Slow Show breach those topics too often considered “taboo” in casual conversation, deconstructing them and approaching them with the kind of respect one can only gain through personal experience. Delicate music and lyrics paint a portrait of humanity’s tortured, beautiful mortal soul. – Mitch Mosk

Before the World Was Big - Girlpool

Before the World Was Big

Girlpool (Wichita)

Just when you think the notion of the rock-duo is played out, a band like Girlpool comes along and blows your mind. Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad take two voices, two guitars and make a sound that, call it indie rock or folk punk or whatever you want, you haven’t heard before. Before the World Was Big follows their acclaimed eponymous EP and expands the sharp, observational perspective of that record. The duo direct their attention to childhood and the rough-and-tumble flux of growing up with gut-punch lines like: “I was taught what to believe/Now I’m only certain/That no one is free/Tranquilize me with your ideal world.” The harmonies are alternately sweet or haunting, and the guitars slink and twang in ways that are always unexpected yet somehow intuitive, which are apt descriptions of the whole record. – Ross Finney

RUN KOKO - Hey Anna

RUN KOKO

Hey Anna (Independent)

Shining above the competition is hard to do as an independent artist, but Hey Anna make it look easy on RUN KOKO. By experimenting with different musical styles, employing a variety of songwriting techniques, and creating songs with mindfulness to both melody and instrumentation, Hey Anna concocted a cohesive, colorful record that encapsulates the warmth, the sunshine, and the feel-good nature of summer. Hey Anna’s music can be described as seaside laze with an urban flare: Few artists are creating such diverse arrays of sounds, and when you combine those musical elements with the Rauch-Sasseen sisters’ penchant for crafting beautiful, cryptic poetry, Hey Anna stand tall. RUN KOKO is the quintessential summer record: Heavy and light, eclectic yet coherent, it offers an abundance of flavors while maintaining a clear musical identity. Swirling psychedelia and crunchy indie rock combine with catchy melodies and memorable riffs to create the perfect listening experience. – Mitch Mosk

Wiped Out! - The Neighbourhood, (c) 2015 Columbia Records

Wiped Out!

The Neighbourhood (Columbia Records)

Indie powerhouse group The Neighbourhood are no strangers to the music scene. Their most recent effort, Wiped Out!, is a unique, sonically intoxicating record that only further proves the band’s worth in the indie-alt scene, and ultimately serves as a reminder that this is a group that is here to stay. Wiped Out! is a beautiful balance of effervescent instrumentals and haunting vocals, prominently displaying The Neighbourhood’s notable musical prowess. Throughout the record, The Neighbourhood accurately sum up what it is to be young and to be human, and they do it with an effortlessness that is steadfastly matchless. Wiped Out! is a breath of fresh air, and serves as a reminder that ideas of life, love and loss need not be classified as simply clichéd or petty. The Neighbourhood and Wiped Out! oblige as the voice of the modern generation; the incarnate voice of Millennial culture. – Maggie McHale

White Reaper Does It Again - White Reaper

White Reaper Does It Again

White Reaper (Polyvinyl Records)

Some great releases catch your ear because they do something you’ve never heard before, and some because they remind you how well x, y or z can be done. White Reaper Does It Again definitely falls in the latter category. With mountains of fuzz, breakneck rhythms, wonky, wonderful keyboards, undeniably hooky melodies and whole heap of smirk-worthy humor, White Reaper makes the kind of primal, balls-to-the-wall punk rock that evokes the best work by bands like the Ramones, the Dickies and the Queers. The Louisville-based band packs twelve songs into a tight thirty minutes, making this record tight but explosive. For those who like their bubblegum melodies delivered with a sneer, who know that rock music can be fun, unpretentious and unfrivolous too, White Reaper is well worth checking out. – Ross Finney

Cry Baby - Melanie Martinez (c) 2015 Atlantic Records

Cry Baby

Melanie Martinez (Atlantic Records)

In what seems like the most unassuming way possible, 20-year-old Melanie Martinez has seemingly taken hold of the alt-pop world. Cry Baby is an invariably addictive alt-pop treasure, and Martinez’s unique voice and poignant lyricism allow for the album to portray her own progression as a budding young artist. Certain songs on the album sound like an apathetic ode to life, while others seem to yearn and lament for stereotypical topics, like love and acceptance. And, although some songs feel as though they could be cut-and-paste onto any alt-pop album, others emulate alt-pop perfection as it should be: charming, catchy, and captivating. Certainly make no mistake: she is undoubtedly the new alt-pop princess, and we should all bow down. – Maggie McHale