Best and worst 2015: Albums

POP

BEST

• Cheating Sons

By Cheating Sons/ Mouldy Records

The four-year wait for the follow-up to rock outfit Cheating Sons' astounding debut was well worth it.

The eponymous album marries the best of rock 'n' roll from the United States and Britain from the last 50 years with Asian pop and tops it all off with a whole lot of soul.

Frontman Wang Renyi sings his heart out and the rest of the quintet layer the intricate music with a mix of guitar, mandolin and banjo as well as an ensemble of guest musicians on strings and horns.

Cheating Sons is a rare gem of an album that sounds like nothing ever released in Singapore.

• Time/Space

By Charlie Lim/ Self-released

With this double EP packaged as a single album, Singaporean troubadour Charlie Lim proves to be a master of both organic, singer-songwriter soul-pop tunes as well as modern R&B and electronica.

The 26-year-old, with his rich, expressive voice, is highly adept at plumbing the depths of heartache in song.

Complex and winding ruminations on love lost sit next to visceral pop tunes layered with sophisticated electronic productions.

The album opens with a sensuous, ragtime drawl complete with tinkling pianos, blaring horns and warm vinyl crackles, but ends with a futuristic, electronic piano melody.

• Beauty Behind The Madness

By The Weeknd/ XO/Republic

Canadian singer-songwriter Abel Tesfaye, known by his stagename The Weeknd, brings a new edginess and depth to mainstream pop.

Long a leading light in the alternative R&B movement, he has a knack for turning risque subjects into chart-topping gold by blending lush, grandiose jams, addictive hooks and his trademark brooding, downtempo sounds.


WORST

• Hollywood Vampires

By Hollywood Vampires/ Republic/UMe

When will actor Johnny Depp stop pretending to be a rock star?

Even the star-studded cast, including veteran rocker Alice Cooper, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry and music legend Paul McCartney, cannot save this bloated re-hash of old rock classics from the undead.

Depp sings backing vocals and plays guitars and keyboards, but none of the covers adds anything to the original and the songs end up sounding like glorified private jams.


BEST

• Carrie & Lowell

By Sufjan Stevens/ Asthmatic Kitty

An elegy for a complicated, troubled, largely absent mother, Sufjan Stevens' latest is quieter than most albums heard this year, but it is the most resonant.

Where before his music roams, here he goes inwards and wrestles with intimate concepts of home and kinship.

• Art Angels

By Grimes/4AD

It is appropriate that Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, was born in Vancouver, the Pacific confluence of East and West.

The electro-pop minx flits like a Butterfly (a song obviously named after her idol Mariah Carey), completely at home in whatever environs she fancies.

She ropes in worldly female compatriots, namely Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes on Scream and American Afro-android queen Janelle Monae on Venus Fly. The results are odd, blissfully so.

• I Love You, Honeybear

By Father John Misty/Sub Pop

As Father John Misty, Josh Tillman reinvents himself as a hologram, projecting and skewering stereotypes: a besotted honeymooner, a cheesy Lothario and a preacher man pontificating on America's economic and moral woes.

Cutting a striking figure as a lissome 1970s-styled singer- songwriter, he struts, blows kisses and baffles. It is funny, funny-sad, smarting and completely sincere.

WORST

• Wilder Mind

By Mumford & Sons/ Island/Glassnote

Whatever happened to the banjos? For Wilder Mind, Mumford & Sons have gone Springsteen, but in the most insipid, po-faced, crushingly dull manner.

Marcus Mumford mumbles like an eviscerated Darth Vader and the rest of the band go through the motions like programmed Stormtroopers.

Yeow Kai Chai


ASIAN POP

BEST

• Amit2

By A-mei/Mei Entertainment

On her second record under the moniker of Amit, Taiwanese diva A-mei gets darker with songs such as Freak Show and Matriarchy.

She flirts with reggae and electronica on Jamaican Betel Nut and bristles with disdain on What D'ya Want?. Through them all, her pop instinct remains unerringly spot-on.

A Bloody Love Song makes you want to embark on a grand gothic romance simply because you have found the perfect soundtrack for it.

• Aphasia

By Tanya Chua/Asia Muse Entertainment

Who knew that Tanya Chua and electronica would go so well together?

The Singapore singer-songwriter takes a gamble on her 10th Mandarin album by venturing into a new genre with long-time lyrics partner Xiaohan.

The result is Tanya as you have never seen or heard before. The term aphasia might refer to a speech disorder, but she is far from tongue-tied in this game-changing album.

• Why? Art

By Yen-j/B'in Music International

Taiwanese singer-songwriter Yen-j draws on jazz, electronica and rap on this album. He also taps into a whole gamut of moods, from anger to playfulness to wistfulness.

The title track Ashtray is pulsing with energy and wordplay, while Traveller is languorously beguiling. This is artful pop music.

WORST

• Because There's You

By Ocean Ou/ Ocean Entertainment

Somebody has to tell Taiwanese singer-songwriter Ocean Ou that this is 2015, not 2003 - so move on already. His lone big hit of yore, Lonely Northern Hemisphere, actually appears here twice - as a reworked album opener and again in a karaoke version. Milking it much?

Boon Chan


CLASSICAL

BEST

• Debussy La Mer

Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Shui Lan/BIS 1837

In French impressionist composer Claude Debussy's La Mer and Images For Orchestra, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra led by Shui Lan sounds fresh and evocative, with great attention paid to detail and nuance. The orchestra, which faces formidable competition in this muchtraversed repertoire, gives lively and sensuous readings and more than hold its own against the best.

• Solo

By Alisa Weilerstein, Cello/ Decca 478 52962

The young American cellist's debut solo album has an underlying theme based on folk music and dances from around the world.

Playing music by Zoltan Kodaly (Hungary), Osvaldo Golijov (Argentina), Gaspar Cassado (Spain) and Bright Sheng (China), her outsized tone, tempered by sensitivity and variety of timbral colours, is a joy throughout.

• Memories Lost

Chen Sa, Piano, Taipei Chinese Orchestra, Chung Yiu-Kwong/ BIS 1974

This excellent album of contemporary Asian piano concertos and solo music is dominated by Turkish composer-pianist Fazil Say's Silence Of Anatolia and Wang Xilin's Piano Concerto (2010), an anti-Yellow River Concerto and a reaction to the Cultural Revolution.

Solos by Hsiao Taizen, Chen Qigang, Julian Yu and Wang Xiaohan also highlight pianist Chen Sa's rare blend of poeticism and technical mastery.

WORST

• The Chopin Project

By Olafur Arnalds & Alice Sara Ott/ Mercury Classics 0028948114863

Polish composer Frederic Chopin is the victim in Icelandic composer and multimedia artist Olafur Arnalds' and German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott's attempt to deconstruct his music. There is little more than atmospheric aural wallpaper here and the album does nothing for one's understanding and enjoyment of Chopin.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2015, with the headline 'Albums'. Print Edition | Subscribe