Top 10 Albums of 2015

2015 set a precedent in how many great releases came out – but what was the best of the best?

For the first time in a few years, everything felt right in 2015. Pop, rap and R&B dominated the charts and airwaves, there were great debuts from a number of young artists, and a few classic rock mainstays dipped their toes into the water again. There was one album that destroyed the charts (see below), an appropriate number of feuds and scandals, and good releases across the board. All in all, 2015 was a great year for music in general. Every genre had successes, as did every month of the year. The year started with a bang (see #3) and didn’t let up. But what was the very best? Find out below:

(Author’s note: Due to the late December 2014 releases of D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah,” Nicki Minaj’s “The Pinkprint” and Charli XCX’s “SUCKER,” I have decided not to factor them into consideration. Also, my undying love for “Pinkprint” would compromise my otherwise objective list.)

#10. Heems – “Eat Pray Thug”

“Eat Pray Thug” is an album about parallels, because rapper Heems recognizes that life has ups and downs and that people can be contradictory to themselves. The album is, at times, very funny and more often, very political. Heems is a New Yorker to his core, as true to the city as Jay-Z or El-P (though different borough!). He’s also of Indian descent, and hasn’t felt welcomed in his own city since 9/11 – when he watched the towers go down from a classroom in Queens. His debut album is honest about racism and depression, while also floating over comedic lines like “Need another drink or I’ll be going mad again / Mad About You I’m on my hellin’ Helen Hunt / But I’m in this corner smokin on this, on this blunt.” Heems explores both himself and America at their very best and very worst. It is somewhat of a comedic departure for Heems – who you may remember from the group Das Racist – but don’t worry, FOX is working on a sitcom about his life. Heems just knows that it’s not always fun and games.

Key Tracks: “Somewhere,” “Flag Shopping,” “Patriot Act”

Author’s Note: When this album came out, I declared that it was going to be the best rap album of the year. There’s three higher in this list. Rappers keep pushing each other to be better and better and it’s produced so much good music.

#9. Vince Staples – “Summertime ’06”

If Heems is a young rapper, than Vince Staples is a toddler. At 22, some of Staples’ critics have noted that he’s too young to have experienced the evils that rappers are focused on. That might be the case, but that doesn’t mean that Staples doesn’t have a lot on his mind. Youth itself is a ton of pressure. On “Surf,” he raps, “In the Planned Parenthood playing God with your mom’s check / You ain’t even been to prom yet.” The album is calm but stuffed. Staples remains relaxed throughout, mixing honesty with ambivalence. But with guest rappers and a lot to say, there’s lines packed everywhere on the album. The choice to qualify it as a double album is an interesting one, and doubles with “Eat Pray Thug” in the whole ‘parallel’ thing – there’s always another side. Also, new artists generally don’t do double-album debuts, which is bold. Fellow young person Fetty Wap’s debut album is three songs shorter but over ten minutes longer. “Summertime ’06” is condensed, and damn if Staples isn’t going to bill it that way. You might think of a drained Chance the Rapper, or a more inclusive Earl Sweatshirt. Don’t – just think Vince Staples.

Key Tracks: “Norf Norf,” “Jump Off the Roof,” “Surf”

Author’s Note: When you search Vince on Spotify, Vince Staples is the second result under the recently trending Vince Guaraldi Trio. Happy Holidays, everyone.

#8. Drake – “If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late”

I’ll be honest – I was cold on this mixtape when it first dropped. I didn’t like it; I didn’t even finish it. But at the time, I didn’t realize that Drake was trying to change his image. Looking back on it now, it was just a big first step. 2015 granted Drake two big gifts this year: Meek Mill and “Hotline Bling.” The former started a feud with him that amounted to David and Goliath, if Goliath had just pummeled David into the ground. The latter was a throwaway Soundcloud track that ended up climbing to #2 on the charts. After these, it’s clearer now how this mixtape was supposed to go – Drake is draining away big productions and beefing up his lyrics. There’s more meat to this music, even if it’s far more minimal. This mixtape, coupled with a subsequent mixtape with Future and his constant Instragrammed workout photos, has led to a tougher Drake. He promised Cash Money records – floundering in scandals – he’d have an album out soon, and instead released two free mixtapes. 2013 Drake wouldn’t have done that. He even raps on this album to stop thinking about the Drake of four years ago. It’s a little tougher to get into, but with lines like “I got bitches asking about the code for the Wifi / So they can talk about their timelines,” it’s easy to see that this reformed Drake is here to stay.

Key Tracks: “Energy,” “10 Bands,” “Know Yourself” 

#7. Father John Misty – “I Love You, Honeybear”

When you’re an indie-folk musician and you name your second album “I Love You, Honeybear,” you’re setting a standard for yourself. A listener probably expects the sweet, She and Him type of empty folksy stuff that dominates adult alternative stations. This isn’t that. Nearly 100% of the lyrics on this album are about sex, often graphic, and it’s uncomfortable. J. Tillman is trying to set himself aside from his peers. That type of empty folk is also what you expect when you learn this guy used to be in Fleet Foxes, but Fleet Foxes and Father John Misty both exist in folk music the same way that Billy Joel and Black Sabbath both exist in classic rock. In reality, he sings about fucking the world on the album’s opening lines, and there’s two tracks with profanity in the title. He’s trying to out-Sufjan Sufjan Stevens, and he succeeds. In fact, once he starts singing about America in the album’s final tracks, you kind of wish he’d go back to sex. Sex is sung about so frequently, that it’s only exciting when it comes from the unexpected. And Father John Misty is all about the unexpected. After all, he did cover Ryan Adams cover of two Taylor Swift songs in the style of Lou Reed, who appeared to him in a dream and told him to take them down. Or so.

Key Tracks: “I Love You, Honeybear,” “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.,” “Bored in the USA”

#6. The Weeknd – “Beauty Behind the Madness”

The Weeknd sings almost exclusively about two things: women and cocaine. That’s pretty standard ground these days, but on his first good full-length, he’s backed by music that’s half disco, half terrifying. It makes sense that he wrote a song for “50 Shades of Grey,” but it also makes sense that the usually detached Lana Del Rey makes an appearance here. This album is a journey through hell, but a hell that’s hand-picked, one that’s lively with an endless champagne well. There really isn’t a weak moment throughout its 65-minute runtime, even if it’s only on two topics. And The Weeknd is frustratingly misogynistic, apparent throughout (the scream in the chorus of “The Hills” is haunting for reasons both good and bad). But damn if this ain’t some of the grooviest music in years. Comparisons to early Michael Jackson are not unwarranted, mixed with the darkness of the song “Thriller.” No one has sounded more like MJ than he does on “In the Night.” It’s a perfect album title, as the dude with the hair can sing and dance better than anyone, even if the opening lines to one of the biggest hits of the year predicts an untimely death by cocaine overdose.

Key Tracks: “Tell Your Friends,” “Can’t Feel My Face,” “In the Night”

#5. Courtney Barnett – “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit”

Never has frustration sounded so good. Barnett topped off a year of great debut albums with the best one (and maybe captured best album title, too). Barnett, an Australian singer-songwriter, mixes the vocal ramblings of early Dylan, the apathy of Wilco’s best work, and the guitar crunch of 90’s post-grunge indie (happy birthday, Dinosaur Jr.). The result is like nothing else in music – loud, and somewhere in between angry and sad. “Pedestrian at Best” is straight anger, while “Depreston” is apathy about being stuck in small town Australia. Barnett is honest and personal; sometimes the listener can relate, and sometimes they can’t. Frankly, I don’t think Barnett cares enough if we do or don’t. These are stories about her own life. There wasn’t an album this year as unique and coherent as Barnett’s; I can’t even properly describe it. Just go listen to it.

Key Tracks: “Pedestrian at Best,” “Depreston,” “Debbie Downer”

#4. Adele – “25”

Man, what a disappointing Adele album. That is to say, if any other artist were to release this album it would be their crowning achievement and most life-fulfilling piece of media they could possibly create. For Adele, it’s an album not quite as good as the last one. The Michael Jordan of music, Adele crushed the one week sales record in the US by nearly a million copies, a record that most thought would never be broken in the decline of physical music purchases (bye, N*SYNC). And for good reason – “25” is a giant hunk of tears. No musician has ever made the world fall to the fetal position and cry for an hour like Adele. She’s the only musician who seems to be universally loved – if the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, than Adele is bigger than the Beatles. With a voice so big it could make Aretha go mute, and a non-celebrity personality, it’s impossible not to love her. “25” has as much heartache as “21,” so grab a tissue box (just kidding – you’ve already listened to it). My favorite thing about Adele’s songwriting is the way she’ll put herself in an antagonistic position – she did it on “Rumour Has It,” and she does it on the ubiquitous hit “Hello.” Adele is human, and she knows pain and recognizing past mistakes. This album almost didn’t happen, and it could very well be her last. But if it’s not, we’ll look forward to “29.” Or “35.” Take your time, Adele.

Key Tracks: “Hello,” “Water Under the Bridge,” “All I Ask”

#3. Sleater-Kinney – “No Cities to Love”

With “No Cities to Love,” Sleater-Kinney managed to do something in the internet age that only Beyonce had done before – surprise everyone with an album. Sure, artists drop surprise albums all the time, but no one outside of the band and the producers knew they were recording. Usually at least insiders and friends know. AND, they did it after a reunion. It’s the band’s first album in 10 years. Their original run included seven albums, each one of which is beloved. Their break-up was partially due to preserving their legacy, and partially due to them feeling their political messages weren’t as relevant. Well, they are again, and Sleater-Kinney are back. This pseudo-punk album is full of rippers and political messages, and guitar solos courtesy of now-famous Carrie Brownstein. Release dates for albums are usually only reflective of the album’s completion, and maybe this was too. But with a release date of 1/20, it was the first album I listened to in 2015, and it welcomed the year in with a firestorm. Opening track “Price Tag” is still one of my favorites of the year, a blistering song about government spending. But don’t let it get too serious – the video for “A New Wave” sets them in the “Bob’s Burgers” universe, and the video for the title track features Andy Samburg, Sarah Silverman, Miranda July, Ellen Page, Fred Armisen, and others. Eight-for-eight, welcome back ladies.

Key Tracks: “Price Tag,” “A New Wave,” “Bury Our Friends”

#2. Alabama Shakes – “Sound & Color”

A Grammy nomination for Album of the Year was a surprise for Alabama Shakes, but not undeserved. This is, by all accounts, the best rock album of the year. 2015 was filled with artists going against type and templates, and Alabama Shakes joined in too. Their first album placed them as an excellent Southern blues-rock band, in an alternative setting. This album has its share of blues-rock, but mixes in punk (“The Greatest”), country (“Gemini”), and an electronica-based title track that sounds ripped from a TV on the Radio recording session. Also, these guys are talented. Each member gets their own moments to shine throughout. And Brittany Howard, her voice can power over all the music, if she chooses. The album’s two best songs, “Don’t Wanna Fight” and “Gimme All Your Love,” are two of the best vocal songs of the year. The latter song starts strong, falls to a climax that is as quiet as humanly possible, and jumps all the way back for a huge finish. “Sound & Color” is an exploration of both influence and space, and we’re invited along for the ride.

Key Tracks: “Don’t Wanna Fight,” “Future People,” “Gimme All Your Love”

#1. Kendrick Lamar – “To Pimp a Butterfly”

Were you expecting anything else? It’s pointless to even write this description. The lines in the sand were drawn immediately after this album came out, between those that love it, and the very, very small group that finds it problematic and overrated. Lamar dropped not only the album of the year, but the best album in years, and one of the best hip-hop albums ever. (What was the last album this good? Adele’s “21?” Or do we go even further back? “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below?”). In a year where countless rappers were tasked by writing political material, Lamar’s hits the hardest. “To Pimp a Butterfly,” clocking in at 79 minutes, covers everything from police brutality, to depression, to childhood dreams, to a careful deconstruction of rap itself. Often depressing, the album is also funky as hell. George Clinton and newfound funk-dude Snoop Dogg are among the only guest contributors, and it shows (though he was backed by many musicians). Lamar is on a different platform than most rappers – he bares everything on tape. The album is permeated by a short, spoken word account of a manic episode he suffered in a hotel room, and it’s repeated multiple times throughout. Lamar even predicted the Drake/Meek Mill beef, by criticizing other rappers for using ghost writers. Even the interludes are entertaining, with Lamar scatting. Although it’s 79 minutes, it set the Spotify record for most plays in full in one day, at over a million (two by me). Get angry, get personal, get funky, and get kinda confused – it’s all here. The Grammy’s shunned Kendrick last time out. He’s up for 11 awards this time. He’d better win some of those.

Key Tracks: “King Kunta,” “Hood Politics,” “The Blacker the Berry,” “i,” the other 12 tracks. Spotify told me “King Kunta” was my most played song this year and I 100% believe that.

Interested in what didn’t make the list?: Here’s the runners-up: Wilco – “Star Wars,” Torres – “Sprinter,” MisterWives – “Our Own House,” Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment – “Surf,” Carly Rae Jepsen – “E*MO*TION,” Blur – “The Magic Whip,” Grimes – “Art Angels” and Meg Myers – “Sorry” rounded out my shortlist.


 

Some releases to look forward to in 2016:

1/8 – David Bowie – Blackstar (I’ve heard this one’s gonna be real weird. He wrote the album while listening to Kendrick Lamar, this year’s #1)

1/22 – Savages – Adore Life (Angry British ladies get more optimistic, but no less loud)

1/29 – Sia – This is Acting (Songs she wrote for Adele, Rihanna and others, that got rejected)

Rihanna, Kanye and Frank Ocean all owe us albums they promised to release this year. Also, Lady Gaga, Pearl Jam, Modest Mouse and Gorillaz are rumored to be working on albums, among many others.

For a subjective list of MY favorite albums, check my blog postgradmusicreviews.wordpress.com at the year’s end. It’ll be kinda similar, but with more up-and-comers.

3 Responses to Top 10 Albums of 2015

  1. […] later and later, I present my favorite albums of 2015. My Proper, Critic list can be found here, but this list is reserved for my exclusively personal favorite albums of the year. Songs from 23 […]

  2. […] and is a piece inspired by one of those newcomers – Kendrick Lamar. Lamar’s blending on last year’s best album invigorated Bowie to make the a late-stage opus. “Blackstar,” in its seven songs, was […]

  3. […] last proper album, 2015’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” jumped to the top of our and just about everyone else’s Best Of lists. The album saw Kendrick, not yet a legend, […]

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