Top 50 Albums of 2015

The year brought forth a number of great albums and reflected the continued renaissance that’s happening in hip-hop and R&B, which has been a pleasure to watch. All available albums are loaded for your listening enjoyment via the Spotify playlist below, enjoy!

 

50. At. Long. Last. A$AP by A$AP Rocky

While it didn’t necessarily deliver the full promise of the hype, At.Long.Last.A$AP was still a fascinating listen, and it’s good to see A$AP Rocky continue to branch out musically. Honestly, some of the strongest tracks are the more left field “L$D” and “Everyday,” while his lyricism shows great improvement on songs like “Excuse Me.”

49. But You Caint Use My Phone by Erykah Badu

While technically listed as a mixtape, But You Caint Use My Phone may seem to owe a lot to Drake’s “Hotline Bling” (which is covered here), but it’s truthfully closer to Badu’s Worldwide Underground EP release from 2003. Both are clear exercises in experimenting with different sonic textures all while taking elements of previous songs– “Tyrone” unsurprisingly is referenced frequently, as the title would lead you to believe. Despite the playful approach, Badu gets into some very interesting places (as always) with her music.

48. Edge of the Sun by Calexico

In a timeless bubble of sorts, Calexico keeps trucking on, continuing to blend elements of Western landscapes with Mexican influences without irony, Calexico is not only great for their particular genre, but one of the true reverent American bands.

47. What Went Down by Foals

Credit Foals for finally allowing themselves to get a bit unhinged– you always knew it was there, but they frequently polished the hell out of their sound to the point that any edge had been completely removed. With What Went Down there’s a clear effort to remedy that, and they largely succeed, as the title track is the most urgent and striking song the band has recorded. Similarly, “Mountain at My Gates” and “Birch Tree” are impressive evolutions of the bands more recognized sound.

46. Prom King by Skylar Spence

It’s too bad Ryan DeRoberts couldn’t negotiate a contract with Pepsi the same way that The Postal Service did with USPS, as the name change from Saint Pepsi to Skylar Spence derailed what was otherwise looking to be a straight shot to mainstream success. Even so, Prom King is a very fun listen, not only with its two previously released singles “Fiona Coyne” and “Fall Harder” but also “Can’t You See.”

45. Foil Deer by Speedy Ortiz

One of the smartest bands around, Sadie Dupuis is well on her way to being one of the most influential rock names for this generation. While not a huge departure from the bands major label debut Major ArcanaFoil Deer also proves that it wasn’t a fluke.

44. GO:OD AM by Mac Miller

The growth and maturation of Mac Miller has been fascinating to watch, and GO:OD AM shows what Miller’s really capable of as an emcee. “Weekend” is one hell of a song, complete with a great feature from Miguel, while “100 Grandkids” perfectly balances Miller’s playfulness while still showing his growth from his more absurd, freewheeling days when first coming up.

43. B4.DA.$$ by Joey Bada$$

Joey Bada$$ is still better than most at balancing his venomous flow with equally appropriate and devastating production, create an inviting vibe to get into while then impressing the hell out of you with his lyrics. Albeit on the long side, B4.DA.$$ is full of the thoughtful tracks you would expect from Joey, especially on “Paper Trail$” and “Like Me.”

42. Star Wars by Wilco

After showing such a knack for crafting meticulously produced albums, it’s refreshing to see Wilco not only let loose a little bit, but allow for the gritty imperfections that frequently mark their off-the-cuff live style to stay on the recordings. Whether it’s “Random Name Generator,” “You Satellite,” or the more straightforward “Taste the Ceiling,” this is the sound of a band, still at the height of their powers, letting loose a bit.

41. Ratchet by Shamir

An intriguing release full of intentionally self-conscious pseudo-bangers, Shamir’s sharp vocals are perfect for his 90’s house backdrop. When it’s firing on all cylinders, Ratchet is an absolute blast (“Make a Scene,” “On the Regular,” and “In For the Kill”).

40. Sun Coming Down by Ought

Ought in general has a very addicting sound, with frontman Tim Beeler doing one hell of a Talking Heads-era David Byrne impression– right down to the rhythmic grunts. Musically the band is more straightforward than their influences, but then again listening to “Beautiful Blue Sky” and it’s hard not to make the comparison. That being said, Ought so far has delivered more fully on the promise that was expected from other bands that have been similarly compared to college rock bands of the ’80s (see Clap Your Hands Say Yeah).

39. The Waterfall by My Morning Jacket

It’s a misnomer to call The Waterfall a total return to form for My Morning Jacket– the album as a whole is largely undermined by its production– but there are some interesting chances being taken here, especially on songs like “Compound Fracture” and the almost tribal “Spring (Amongst the Living).” Even so, there are some nostalgic moments, as “Only Memories Remain” recalls Z‘s “Dondante,” just without the emotional weight or the sweet saxophone solo, while “Tropics (Erase Traces)” would not have seemed out of place on It Still Moves.

38. Shadow of a Doubt by Freddie Gibbs

While not the world beater that the Madlib-produced Piñata was, credit Freddie Gibbs for being willing to continue to try different sounds, as even his delivery on Shadow of a Doubt is quite a bit different than what he’s done previously. It’s an exceptionally dark and gritty album, with a largely harsh, industrial production.

37. Feels Like by Bully

It’s hard to say if Bully frontwoman Alicia Bognanno will ever escape Courtney Love comparisons, but she’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to regardless, and Feels Like is an impressive debut from this Nashville outfit.

36. Ibeyi by Ibeyi

The debut release from the French-Cuban twins Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz is a true gem quite unlike anything else that has been released this year. Alternating between English and Yoruba, the dedication to implementing their ancestral roots into their music gives Ibeyi some additional weight, while also making it a far less conventional album than it likely otherwise would be.

35. Viet Cong by Viet Cong

Sadly the band became more well known for their unfortunate name than their blazing debut, Viet Cong is a primal and urgent album that’s as engrossing as it is relentless. Featuring half of the lineup from Women, there are some definite nods to the original band, especially on songs like “Continental Shelf.”

34. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late by Drake

Even beyond the tabloid news and Meek Mill beef, it’s been a good year for Drake. Given the larger than life status of his current hit “Hotline Bling,” which was seemingly stumbled upon (and then later Drake doubled down with a ridiculous music video) and his collaboration with Future, it’s easy to forget he also came out with a very good album. It’s still difficult to envision Drake being as hard as he wants to sound (thankfully there’s nothing quite as ludicrous as “Started from the Bottom”), but the earworms that he drops on “Energy,” “Know Yourself,” and many other tracks are impossible to resist.

33. Emotion by Carly Rae Jepsen

If that name looks familiar, yes it’s THAT Carly Rae Jepsen. As much as she’s considered a one-hit wonder in many circles, Jepsen is still making absurdly catchy pop songs. Turn off your brain and let the saccharine hooks take hold.

32. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside by Earl Sweatshirt

A deeply personal and incredibly mature album, Earl Sweatshirt readily puts himself under a magnifying glass in ways very few artists of his ilk have or would even care to. Constantly at odds with himself and expectations (real and imagined), the conflict fuels I Don’t Like Shit… as he continues to deal with the pressures of fame, and the results are arresting.

31. Are You Alone? by Majical Cloudz

Much like their debut, Are You Alone? is a haunting piece of work. A seemingly endless exercise in solitude, Majical Cloudz continues to walk the impressive tightrope of finding the silver lining of devastating beauty in some of the darkest places.

30. My Love is Cool by Wolf Alice

Despite forming in 2010, My Love is Cool is the debut release from Wolf Alice and the results are impressive, especially given the relative youth of the London four-piece. From the moody and atmospheric opener “Turn to Dust” to the 90’s rocker “Fluffy,” Wolf Alice does a lot of things very well, it’ll be interesting to see how they continue to harness that talent.

29. Depression Cherry by Beach House

Beach House largely made a living on their very specific sound, so departing from that after nearly 10 years is a bit of a surprise. That being said, the change is not only welcome but positive for the duo, with “Sparks” and “PPP” in particular being two of the better songs they’ve done.

28. No Cities to Love by Sleater-Kinney

After a decade away, it was great to hear Sleater-Kinney together again, especially with the level of energy and purpose that they display here on No Cities to Love. Like any good reunion, the album is good enough to make you forget they were ever gone.

27. Divers by Joanna Newsom

It’s a common statement that still bears repeating– if you can handle Newsom’s distinctive voice you’re in for a treat. A brilliant harpist and songwriter, Newsom can draw you into her world immediately. With each successive album, she has done an even more admirable job of increasing her accessibility without losing the elements that fans adore about her, as seen on singles “Sapokanikan” and the title track.

 

26. Mutant by Arca

Famed Venezuelan producer Arca has worked with everyone from Björk to Kanye West to FKA Twigs, and between Mutant and his debut release Xen it’s very easy to see why he’s such an in-demand talent to work with as producer. A dense menagerie of sounds, constantly twitching and pulsing and organically growing through this complex album makes it well worth the investment.

25. Have You in My Wilderness by Julia Holter

Julia Holter’s fourth album is a fantastic piece of baroque pop, with intricate arrangements and lush backdrops that serve as a perfect setting for Holter’s voice to deliver its proper weight. Highlights include “Silhouette,” “Sea Calls Me Home” and the opening “Feel You.”

24. Multi-Love by Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Ruban Nielson’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra has come a long way from its Bandcamp roots. No longer content with their largely lo-fi sound with a tinge of soul, Multi-Love is a much more daring effort. Perhaps also due to the bands newfound flexibility, the album is also more interesting and holds its own well for the entirety of the running length, a contrast to their previous top-heavy releases.

23. After by Lady Lamb

The opening “Vena Cava” is one of the more brilliant moments in music this year, and Aly Spaltro never lets up from that point on. After continues Spaltro’s knack for brilliant songwriting, with loads of instantly likeable songs that will stay in your head for hours and leave you with a smile.

22. New Bermuda by Deafhaven

Heavy metal, like hip-hop, is another genre that for the last decade has been in a sort of renaissance, continuously pushing the boundaries of the genre and bringing an artistic slant to a genre rarely seen previously. Not frequently covered here on this blog, it seems appropriate that an album argued to be anything but heavy metal be included on this list. Technicalities aside, Deafhaven can do no wrong with their music, heavy metal or not– they are at a point in their careers where they appear to enter each recording session with a goal in mind, execute it to the highest degree of proficiency, and release it without any concern for how fans might perceive it. New Bermuda is a beautiful, haunting and challenging work that at the end of the day, sits comfortably with the rest of Deafhaven’s highly regarded discography.

21. Elaenia by Floating Points

Surprisingly, this is Floating Points’ Sam Shepherd’s first full length album. The entry is an intriguing blend of electronic and free jazz, something that wouldn’t sound out of place as a lost Herbie Hancock side project. With deceptively bare arrangements, the focus is primarily on the sense of space and timing, rather than a more forward approach to either genre, which makes for a very rewarding listen that requires multiple takes where you can discover new elements and layers with each go ’round.

20. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit by Courtney Barnett

While she appears to be closer to Sheryl Crow than Bob Dylan, Courtney Barnett impresses with her blend of matter-of-fact witticisms and rock sensibilities. Her lyrics are sharp and clever and while she still seems to be more at home with the more sparsely arranged tracks, she does quite well on the harder songs too.

19. Currents by Tame Impala

One of the more polarizing albums of the year, Tame Impala’s Currents is often brilliant and often frustrating, sometimes even both at once. Next to their breakthrough hit, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” “Let It Happen” and “‘Cause I’m a Man” are the best songs the band has made. In general, there’s a lot of very strong songwriting– deeply personal and arresting stuff about a relationship gone bad– but the further the album goes along, the further it descends into some sort of twisted madness (the peak of which is on “Past Life,” which is complete with a cheesy digitized breakup narration). Artistically, it’s an album full of interesting risks, and heaven knows that’s needed these days, but those risks don’t always make for an enjoying listen.

18. Late Nights: The Album by Jeremih

Chicago’s own Jeremih might’ve had to wait a while to prove he wasn’t a one-hit wonder– six years to be exact– but Late Nights: The Album was worth the wait. While a lot of the material is revamped from his Late Nights mixtape, the overall package still feels fresh and at no point do his new songs feel tacked-on. There are plenty of guest spots here, notably J. Cole, Ty Dolla $ign, Migos, and Future and Big Sean, but the best tracks are when Jeremih is on his own (“Pass Dat,”  “oui,” “Actin’ Up”). Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait so long before his follow up release.

17. Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes

Musically stretching far beyond anything they released previously, you know you’re in for something entirely different as soon as the vibraphone rings on the hypnotic opening title track. Unlike other similar reinventions (Black Keys most notably comes to mind), the Alabama Shakes introduction of retro soul is much more subdued and a meticulously designed layer that melds within their pre-existing aesthetic. The result is a blissful extension of what fans loved about the band on their debut, while still showing they are capable of much, much more.

16. Fading Frontier by Deerhunter

The most unusual aspect of Deerhunter’s latest album is the general lack of misdirection. The single “Snakeskin” serves as a red herring in what is otherwise a very mature, reflective Deerhunter release. That’s by no means a bad thing, with “Living My Life” being one of the better songs the band has made, and the absolutely beautiful duet between vocalists Lockett Pundt and Bradford Cox on “Breaker.”

15. In Colour by Jamie XX

Next to Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” Jamie XX’s “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” might be the ubiquitous song of 2015. Even without that single, In Colour would still be considered an impressive album, with addictive tracks like “Loud Places” and “Sleep Sound” and the haunting opener “Gosh” showing Jamie XX’s talents as a producer– his sonic landscape and abilities expands far beyond hat has been shown with the xx.

14. Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens

There has always been an element of darkness in Stevens’ albums, even when he was dedicating them to states, but never to the degree of sheer vulnerability and occasional hopelessness as it exists within Carrie & Lowell. Still, it’s a beautiful album, as one would expect a Sufjan Stevens album to be, and once you’ve prepared yourself for the weight of it all you’re in for quite the treat.

13. Natalie Prass by Natalie Prass

Natalie Prass is already a great songwriter, and while her vocals don’t seem as though they would translate well live based on her album, she actually does have phenomenal stage presence (you can particularly listen to her Anita Baker cover to figure that out). What makes her debut even stronger is the fantastic production by Matthew E. White and the string and horn arrangements in particular that elevate songs like “Bird of Prey” to the rarified pantheon of timeless pop pieces.

12. Sprinter by Torres

As good as her self-titled debut was, the one thing holding Torres back was the constant feeling of self-awareness and restraint in her music. That definitely is not a problem this time around, and her ranking on this list is a reflection of that. The opening “Strange Hellos” has the subtlety of a jet engine, and Sprinter continues in unrelenting fashion.

11. VEGA INTL. Night School by Neon Indian

While more prominently known for his chillwave work, the latest from Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo is a hybrid between his Neon Indian sound and the lone EP he did under the name VEGA. The result is a delightfully nocturnal album that could be a great complimentary piece for Prince’s Purple Rain and Daft Punk’s Homework. While not a true concept album, the overall theme of the dark underbelly of nightlife is ever-present and something that fits Palomo’s style better than imagined, especially on “Annie” and “Techno Clique.” All in all, VEGA INTL… is a surprising but really fun album.

10. Beauty Behind the Madness by The Weeknd

An unlikely overnight success if there ever was one, Beauty Behind the Madness is The Weeknd doubling down on his Michael Jackson mimicry, all while continuing to lament (or humble-brag) about his vapid life filled with sex, drugs, and hustle. On paper, it’s exceptionally bleak and dull, which is why it’s humorous that The Weeknd’s music continues to work so well. Beauty Behind the Madness has magic in its production one minute (“Losers,” “Tell Your Friends,” “Often”), and then will show off his vocal chops the next (“Can’t Feel My Face,” “The Hills,” “Prisoner”). Hell, he made an Ed Sheeran guest spot tolerable, that in itself is a feat.

9. Ego Death by The Internet

Between their innocuous name and being the left-field soul outfit in Odd Future, The Internet never appeared primed to be much more than a novelty act. After releasing their half-baked debut, Purple Naked Ladies, this seemed all but cemented. Fast forward a few years to now, and you have a band that is not only near the top of their game, but rightfully GRAMMY nominated to boot. Syd Bennett is the atypical frontwoman for the group– her vocals won’t ever wow you, but her lyrics almost read like a diary, giving Ego Death an earnest emotional core that’s hard to resist.

8. Blood by Lianne La Havas

From the minute Blood begins with the gorgeous opener “Unstoppable,” you know this album is something special. With lush production to supplement Lianne La Havas already excellent songwriting and vocals, there are some absurdly beautiful moments here, with La Havas always leaving you wanting more and wondering where she will take you next on her musical journey.

7. Vulnicra by Björk

Björk has never really released a bad album in her 25-year career, the only difference in any given year is how many layers Björk has put up to make her music accessible by anyone other than her most devoted followers. Deeply intimate and personal, Vulnicra is probably the easiest Björk album to immediately enjoy since 1995’s Post.

6. Wildheart by Miguel

Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream began his transition from one of many artists in the rejuvenated genre of R&B to emerging as a real talent. While still yet to maintain the same level of exposure as The Weeknd or even a Bruno Mars, Miguel turned up the sex appeal big time on Wildheart, but erased much of the goofiness that occasionally bubbled above the surface. The result owes quite a bit to Prince, but in a good way. Even on his most explicit songs such as “FLESH,” “NWA” and “the valley,” Miguel’s vocals contain a level of sincerity and sensuality that it’s hard to read as anything less than genuine. From beginning to end, Wildheart is a sultry, incredible ride.

5. The Epic by Kamasi Washington

It’s hard to imagine in today’s world of social media driven instant-gratification that a three-disc, 172-minute long, jazz album could somehow capture the hearts and minds of so many, yet here were are. This brilliant opus released through Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label, not only showcases the immense talent of Washington and his contemporaries, but it’s an album that does as much to honor the past as it celebrates the shape of jazz to come.

4. I Love You, Honeybear by Father John Misty

Absurd, witty, often hilarious and sometimes even lovelorn, Josh Tillman’s Father John Misty takes the beauty that always existed in Fleet Foxes’ music but injects it with healthy dose of cynicism. The pieces were all there from his first release as Father John Misty (2012’s Fear Fun), but I Love You, Honeybear is even sharper than its predecessor, and just a bit more enjoyable because of it.

3. Summertime ’06 by Vince Staples

A long underrated rapper mostly known for his guest verses on Odd Future tracks, Vince Staples impressed with his Hell Can Wait EP. His feature length debut Summertime ’06, a concept (of sorts) double-album, was an ambitious decision to say the least, but it’s very well executed. Staples is great at both one-liners and crafting convincing characters and story arches within his songs, never allowing for any downtime over this lengthy 20-track statement.

2. Art Angels by Grimes

Not that she had a lot to prove after her immensely successful debut Visions, Grimes has shown tremendous growth between her first album and this one. With an insane attention to detail, much sharper songwriting (“Butterfly,” “Flesh Without Blood”) and greater chances taken (“SCREAM,” “Venus Fly”), Art Angels is one of the surprisingly great releases this year.

1. To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar

An instant classic and an absolute masterpiece, Kendrick Lamar is rightfully considered among the greatest rappers living, while also proving his immense skills as an artist. It helps too that the timeliness of To Pimp a Butterfly allows for tracks like “Alright” to be the rallying cry used in marches as Lamar deftly unravels the layers of socio-economic and racial divisions, poverty and understanding and harnessing the power that can come from fame. Between it’s genre-bending approach to music, interludes that evolve into an imagined interview with an idol, To Pimp a Butterfly is a dynamic work of art, a soundtrack set to a play that has yet to be made.

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