The top 10 albums of 2015
1. To Pimp A Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar’s attitude and musical style has significantly grown since the release of hit single “Swimming Pools (Drank)” that was mostly played at frat parties with gross beer and nightclubs with strobe lights. It evolved into a mature plea of self-expression on his newest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, that throws away the glorification of fame and instead burns people with the ugly truths of racism and socio-economic class issues.
BET named Kendrick Lamar the “Lyricist of the Year”, as the album showcased his talent of creating poetry and intertwining it with music to create the masterpiece that is To Pimp A Butterfly. Songs like “Hood Politics,” “Institutionalized,” and “The Blacker the Berry” are perceptions about the experience of being Black today. Kendrick’s lyrics are raw and emotional — it’s impossible to not empathize or get pissed off with the racism that still exists creating an ache for change in the world.
He sets these lyrics in front of music that has influences from multiple decades and genres to create this well rounded diverse piece of artwork. The opening song “Wesley’s Theory” sounds very Howard Johnson-esque with its funky vibe paired with some R&B components. There’s also heavy jazz influence that artists like Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington contributed that make To Pimp A Butterfly even more eccentric.
To Pimp A Butterfly became one of the best pieces of art released in 2015 because each separate component melts into the other, creating this message that helps us grow inside of our own individual cocoon. Hopefully, we’ll all be able to emerge into the monarch that is Kendrick Lamar.
— Selena Aguleira
2. Currents - Tame Impala
Apparently, people actually take the time to stalk my music preferences on Tinder because I got a message from Luke, eager to know what I thought of Currents. Both Tame Impala fans, Luke and I hit it off immediately. We both agreed — Currents is the Australian band’s best album to date. But unfortunately for us, we disagreed on the album’s best songs. Luke jams to “Let It Happen” and “Past Life,” but when I claimed that “The Moment” and “Eventually” are the best songs on the album I was promptly unmatched. It’s whatever; I’m over it. I’m over it because obviously I’m right. “The Moment” and “Eventually” are both smooth indie classics that have already secured a tenured spot on my “car tunes” playlist and my “summer vibes” playlist. These songs, like the 11 others that comprise Currents, demonstrate just how ephemeral psychedelic indie rock can be. Tame Impala managed to produce a magical 13-track album that’s perfect for any occasion. You can play it when you ~chill~, you can burn incense and dream about Coachella to it and you can even use the soundtrack to justify buying things you can’t afford at Urban Outfitters. Additionally, it makes for the perfect, “I don’t want to go to class but let me walk melancholially to class anyway” album. You can even *gasp* just lay in bed and listen to the album on repeat without wanting to look at your phone to Snapchat the moment.
— Danielle Immerman
3. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit - Courtney Barnett
Last March I volunteered to review Courtney Barnett’s debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit without knowing anything about her music. In the review, I gave it a B+. Almost ten months later I can only think “what the fuck?” My review wasn’t wrong, I thought her album was good, but it’s stunning. It’s without a doubt an A+.
Sometimes I Sit … is a lyrical masterpiece. Barnett throws 11 short scenes at listeners and expects them to keep up throughout the entire ride. Every track is lyrically dense no matter the speed of delivery. “Pedestrian at Best,” “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t” and “Debbie Downer” are the catchiest and offer the most insight into Barnett’s internal (and beautiful) ramblings.
Others offer less catch and drone on. “Small Poppies” morphs rock star guitars and monotone delivery of “an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye,” creating one of the most weirdly pleasurable tracks on the LP. “Kim’s Caravan” is soft-spoken reflection on Australia's coral reef that builds with repetition and tone. “Depreston” does the opposite — Barnett talks through a story of looking to buy a house in Depreston that “seems depressing.” The track ultimately finds its center on the repetition of the realtor’s line “If you’ve got a spare half a million, you could knock it down and start rebuilding.” Each delivery drives home Barnett’s point. It emphasizes the ridiculousness of the trip and exemplifies Barnett’s ability to beautify the mundane.
Barnett killed 2015. Her debut album was praised. She was one nomination the VMAs got right. She played killer shows across the world. (I saw her at Bonnaroo and it was transcendent.) Now, in 2016 she’s going for “Best New Artist” at the Grammys. It should be a no-brainer who wins this year.
— Christian Kennedy
4. Carrie & Lowell - Sufjan Stevens
Listening to Sufjan Stevens is great for when you need a good cry, when you miss someone or when you suddenly remember that abandoned cat you saw three years ago and can’t stop wondering what happened to it. But really, he makes you think. Playing Stevens’s record requires a confrontation with your being — it’s impossible to take in his signature spry instrumentation and delicate vocals without at least being prompted to think about something bigger than yourself. Carrie & Lowell tackles Stevens’s relationship with his mother and stepfather — their lives, struggles, deaths and beliefs. Stevens holds nothing back, tackling the most intimate of questions regarding what it means to be in a family, both the good and the bad. The album is gentle and beautiful, with Stevens’s pleasant voice contrasting his emotionally heavy lyrics. Carrie & Lowell is a masterful, standout addition to Stevens’s already impressive body of work.
— Carly Snider
5. Art Angels - Grimes
Artist and producer Claire Boucher, better known for her most recent project as Grimes, delivers in her highly anticipated follow-up to her 2012 release, Visions. Released in November, Art Angels is avant-garde; it’s kawaii; it’s horrifying; it’s incredible. Grimes ushers listeners to their seats with “laughing and not being normal,” violin and synth chords clashing against one another, a sinister organ and her vocals verging on choral, yielding a sonic aesthetic that places 19th-century gothic in the present. But straightaway we’re brought into “California,” which plays with juxtaposition once more, its fluid guitar and sugary sound pushed against melancholic lyrics about the ephemeral and dehumanizing nature of hype. Juxtapositions and contradictions are everywhere in this album: “California” sounds sweet but then we get “SCREAM,” an ice-hot and semi-horrifying nu-metal collaboration with Taiwanese DJ Aristophanes. She’s avant-pop but unrelentingly claims to represent the alternative, to press against what we think of as going together. Art Angels shows us that women can do the technical work of producers, that producers can be experimental artists, that cute can be “too scary to be objectified” (in the artist’s own words), that happy and angry can coexist, that pop can be alternative, that the individual can be whatever they want to be, and that life is fucking confusing and dark and fun all at once, all the time.
— Regan Detwiler
6. If You're Reading This It's Too Late - Drake
2015 saw a total image revamp for Drake, in both physique and sound: The rapper put on 30 lbs. of lean muscle (as seen on his instagram, @champagnepapi), very publicly severed ties with Cash Money Records, signed a $20 million deal with Apple, annihilated Meek Mill in response to allegations against his authenticity and solidified his status as “a motherfucking legend.”
It all began with the surprise release of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late in late February. “ ‘Best I Ever Had’ feels like a decade ago,” Drake raps on “6PM In New York.” That Drake is dead and gone, replaced by a more cold, confident and calculating Drake — a product of his fame. He knows it too, as he notes in “Know Yourself”: “I’m turning into a nigga that thinks about money and women / like 24-7, that’s where my life took me / that’s just how shit happened to go.” And so, with IYRTITL, Drake buries his former self, and even pens the eulogy for his funeral — “Please do not speak to me like I’m that Drake from four years ago / I’m at a higher place.” That’s not only a lament of the past, but a warning for the future.
— Rachel Kerr
7. DS2 - Future
Like so many other hip hop releases this year, DS2 banged, but it did so much more. From the moment the album got rolling, we heard the spark of a blunt, the opening of a 2-liter Sprite and ominous stirring. By the time he dropped one of the greatest album-opening lines in recent history (if you don’t know it by now, I’m not sure what to tell you), the stage was set for Navaydius Wilburn’s magnum opus.
DS2 obviously takes place in a smoky room, but it also delves into the deepest crevices of Future’s subconscious; there are lines that leave you genuinely concerned for his well-being. In the months leading to its release, Future experienced numerous complications ranging from DJ Esco’s imprisonment in Abu Dhabi to his split with Ciara, and he channeled all of it into a noticeably darker sound. DS2 chronicles his self-medication process in a pool of promethazine.
But even more than a series of inward-looking bangers, DS2 is also another installment of Future’s defiance against the inevitable gentrification of rap. Where it’s painfully obvious which rappers have a team of marketers in suits directing their every move, Future reminds us at every opportunity that his meteoric rise has been entirely organic. From the underground strip club circuit in Atlanta to the glittery Drake collaborations, the phrase “I came from the mud” has appeared on every project. Riding the wave of his rapid-fire instant-classic mixtape spree earlier in the year, DS2 is a continuation of his defiant keep-it-realness despite national attention.
There are only two songs that long-time collaborator Metro Boomin doesn’t have production credits on, and they’re produced by Southside and Zaytoven; Atlanta super-producers that Future is known to have high chemistry (no pun intended) with. There’s only one feature, Drake on the anthemic “Where Ya At”, and even that wouldn’t have materialized had Drake not reached out to him. Point being, DS2 has something the industry simply cannot buy: authenticity.
When he screams, “I’m about to fuck this cash up on a new toy” on “Stick Talk,” it’s more than apparent this dude was sleeping in dope houses a couple years ago. The whole album is characterized by the brash recklessness of a man coping with fame while killing himself from the inside-out; less than 30 seconds later he threatens to lie under oath.
Everything comes to a head with album-closer “Blood On The Money,” where Future’s crooning is more noticeably weathered, eroded and beaten. Metro’s synths evaporate into a cloud of weed smoke on a beat that’s the closest most of us will ever come to the feeling of sipping lean in church. In a parting speech of sorts, Future ghosts out of the room with “I hang with all the killers and the robbers … I pour me up a drink, say ‘Fuck my problems.’ ” And just like that, he salutes his inner circle before disappearing into a purple haze.
— Shayan Shafii
8. In Colour - Jamie xx
2015 has been a big year for electronic music. It’s also been a largely divisive one, highlighting the fissure between the often-derided but very festival-ready “beat drop” driven music popularized by producers like Diplo and Tiesto and the more experimental music of artists like Arca and FKA Twigs. There’s no denying the popularity of the former: “Lean On” by Major Lazer & DJ Snake received over 526 million streams on Spotify in 2015, making it the most streamed single of the year.
But because of the enormous popularity of more formulaic, dance-driven electronic, the majority of the public chalks up the entire genre to that formula, overlooking more nuanced and emotive releases. In Colour is one of those releases.
Jamie xx, known for his role in the indie-rock band The xx, garnered individual recognition thanks to his ear for remixes, reworking the likes of Adele, Radiohead and Gill Scott-Heron. After 3 years without an official solo release, Jamie xx released “All Under One Roof Raving” in 2014. The single highlighted the producer’s enigmatic tendencies. It’s doubtlessly based in electronic hardcore, but the sound showcases Jamie’s unique strength for making music that sounds like life. Voices fill the track, giving it the feel of some kind of spontaneous creation that emanates from the dance floor, not to it.
In Colour, his debut album, is a beautiful expansion on this concept. It polishes out the harder, more immediate sound that Jamie’s first releases had (“NY Is Killing Me”) and plays out like a cathartic sunrise, revealing its subtle details and blissful turns with each new track. The features from fellow xx bandmates Romy and Oliver Sim are always at harmony with the production, never transcending it, allowing it to grow and move at its own pace.
Then there’s the genius Young Thug feature. That Jamie xx can perfectly integrate Young Thug into an album filled with delicate sounds and nuanced emotion speaks to his balance-handling skills. It’s also a testament to how remarkably modern the debut is, taking cues from electronic music that could happily live in the ’90s and contemporizing it into a living being that lives in today and tomorrow. That one of the trendiest rappers in the game can inhabit this track with ease is a validation of such modernism.
Above all, In Colour succeeds on its ability to elicit emotion from the listener. It moves from meditative to brooding to upbeat to optimistic, sometimes all in a single track. Few releases have such weight, and even fewer can do so with hardly speaking a word.
In Colour reminds us that among the throbbing of Coachella EDM, electronic music can be — and often has been — a peaceful art.
— Matt Gallatin
9. Emotion - Carly Rae Jepsen
“No, I’m not kidding. Trust me — you really just have to listen to it.”
Ever since the summer, when people ask me what I’m listening to, I have risked all credibility by ranting to them about Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, a front-to-back masterpiece of breathless, anthemic bubblegum dance.
In 2015, Carly Rae Jepsen reinvented the pop album, creating the most substantial collection of catchy should-be hits I’ve ever heard. Though it barely made any kind of commercial dent, it developed a cult following consisting mostly of Tumblr geeks and music writers who don’t hate fun. Emotion is meant to be played endlessly on Top 40 radio, yet I have yet to get sick of it despite playing its songs constantly for the last 6 months. Jepsen reportedly wrote hundreds of songs for Emotion, and her perfectionism and attention to detail makes every single part flawless.
I love everything about Emotion: From the cheesy ’80s saxophone at the record’s start to the slippery way Jepsen pronounces the word “hallucinations” to the winking lust of Jepsen’s “Do ya know what I mean?” (which you’ll only hear if you get the bonus tracks). There’s no song easier to dance and smile to than the title track. No rock song this year had more glorious energy than “Run Away With Me.” Nothing got stuck in my head more easily than “Boy Problems.”
Jepsen sings about simple, universal things like driving home with a crush and flirting with someone cute and having adventures with a lover. (You might see a pattern there, but it all somehow stays totally fresh.) Her work recalls David Bowie’s Let’s Dance — an easy to swallow piece of genius that totally destroys everything you thought pop music should be — and 30 years from now, every romcom will be legally required to include a dance sequence to a track from Emotion a la today’s movies and “Modern Love.”
And with every “You were right. Carly Rae is straight fire” text on my phone, I get more and more excited, because until Emotion gets played at clubs for hundreds of people to sing along and dance to, it won’t have reached its full potential. This record should have been an instant hit, but I’ll happily see it spread slowly, person to person, as it eventually becomes one of the defining records of its era.
— Adam Theisen
10. Summertime '06 - Vince Staples
Once upon a summertime, rookie rapper Vince Staples dropped a sultry, expertly subdued debut album. The Long Beach native, who is notably chummy with Earl Sweatshirt and Mike G, also released an EP in 2014 called Hell Can Wait. A solid compilation, Hell put Staples on the map — but it’s not nearly as valiant, as much of a staple as Summertime ’06.
It’d be wrong to say the tracklist (a whopping two sides, 20 songs in total) isn’t unconventional. One listen to “Loca,” a slinky number with a pounding drum pulse, and the listener steps back — whoa. This isn’t like Fetty or Drake. Heck, the song’s hook is one word: a hoarse young woman, probably in some silk-sheeted bed, saying “bay-baaay.” Over and over, it comes back — the simple, sinful anchor to Staples’ verbose verses. “Norf Norf” brings more high-octane energy, as Staples prophetically spits: “I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police.”
And just like that, Summertime ’06 becomes much more than any ole rap album. There’s no booty, no shots, no “beez in the trap” save the album’s brilliant song “Birds & Bees.” Aided by Daley, and DJ Dahi-produced, it’s a complex, pensive track — Staples spins that platitude given to us around childhood into a metaphor for the life in which he, and so many of his friends, were brought up. Embedded in the tune’s psyche is the idea that a “gangsta’s” life is the end-all, that finding “another dead body in the alley” is as natural as the birds and the bees. The song becomes a statement for Staples, then — a cheeky yet sad nod to the life from which he dared to stray. And the whole album follows suit, beautifully.
I first got turned on to Staples after watching his performance on The Tonight Show with Jhene Aiko and The Roots. As “Lemme Know,” my now-favorite off the album, started with Aiko and Staples semi-singing together about some sexy, clumsy relationship, I knew I had to hear more. It was so chill, Staples’ talent so effortless and confident and inborn.
If you find a better hip-hop debut in 2016, lemme know.
— Melina Glusac