The Best Albums of 2015

2015 absolutely owned 2014 in terms of great music. While there was great music last year, the sheer volume and quality of incredible albums from 2015 dwarfs 2014. Here are my picks for the best albums of 2015.

Rae Sremmurd | SremmLife

The only album that blasted out of my car this summer.

Speedy Ortiz | Foil Deer

A Pavement clone, except if Pavement was headed by a powerful woman.

Passion Pit | Kindred

A piece of unrelenting positivity that is far less distinctive than their previous two efforts.

Kacey Musgraves | Pageant Material

A better-produced, more mainstream version of Kacey Musgraves’ excellent country pop debut.

Carly Rae Jepsen | E•MO•TION

The best pure pop album of the year, Carly Rae Jepsen’s dumbstruck love stands in stark contrast to more assertive mainstream artists.

Meek Mill | Dreams Worth More Than Money 

It was better than Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.

CHVRCHES | Every Open Eye

A slightly disappointing but still great continuation of CHVRCHES’ signature synthpop sound.

The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die | Harmlessness

An incredibly emotive vocal performance highlights this tribute to 2000s-era emo pop.

A$AP Rocky | At.Long.Last.A$AP 

The culmination of cloud rap as a genre, this sprawling mess of an album was the most psychedelic record of the year.

Dr. Dre | Compton

The triumphant return of one of the most influential MCs of all time.

Eskimeaux | O.K

A relaxing album of subdued bedroom pop that could put even the most agitated of souls to sleep.

Beach House | Thank Your Lucky Stars

The more political, cold, experimental album that Beach House released in 2015.

Beach House | Depression Cherry

The more commericalized, accessible, warm album that Beach House released in 2015.

SOPHIE | Product

An incredibly experimental collection of everything SOPHIE has released over the past few years, combining aspects of drone, K-Pop, and 90s popular music.

Jamie xx | In Colour

A warm piece of electronica that shows Jamie xx come into his own as a solo producer.

Sufjan Stevens | Carrie and Lowell

A devastating (if one-dimensional) look at Sufjan Stevens’ life with his absent mother and stepfather.

Waxahatchee | Ivy Tripp

A beautiful amalgamation of folk, indie pop, and noise rock told honestly and frankly by the great Katie Crutchfield.

PC Music | PC Music Volume 1

A compilation of some of PC Music’s most notable material. 2/3 of the album is fantastic, the other 1/3 is unlistenable.

Read my full review here.

Earl Sweatshirt | I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

A dark, brooding album of horrorcore-influenced rap that continues Sweatshirt’s great discography.

Read my full review here.

11. (honorable mention) Leon Bridges | Coming Home

In the words of Jay-Z: “Sounds so soulful, don’t you agree?

Read my full review here.

10. Natalie Prass | Natalie Prass

download (2)Much has been said about the lush arrangements of Natalie Prass’s self-titled debut, but my favorite aspect of the record is her voice. It’s distinctive, but not in a Mariah Carey way or an Ariana Grande way. It’s fragile and dejected; sometimes funny, sometimes despondent. It can be light and flitting, like a hummingbird or a butterfly, making Prass sound like a Disney princess (especially on “It Is You”). She’s charismatic, and she overshadows the production on this record. That’s saying something, considering it’s one of the most beautiful albums of the year.

The build-and-release song structure is tried and true, and that avenue of songwriting is very prominent on Natalie Prass. The album’s highlights, “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” and “Violently” start off very quiet. Muted horns, soft woodwinds and the odd string or two are layered underneath Prass’s low singing. The tunes gradually build and build until they burst in an explosion of orchestral color. Saxophones, violas, string basses, and everything in between come together to create a chamber pop dream of folk and country music. Prass’s debut has me wondering where she might go from here.

9. Tame Impala | Currents

download (1)Kevin Parker, the mastermind behind Tame Impala’s two phenomenal psychedelic rock albums (Innerspeaker and Lonerism), decided to make a pop album this time around. And he hit a home run. Simply put, Currents is one of the biggest aural treats we’ve gotten in 2015. Parker’s mastery of music production combined with his improved singing and songwriting made this an emotional and pretty record. While the record isn’t perfect, the songs that do make an impact are some the best we’ve heard from Tame Impala.

“Cause I’m A Man” is a straight-up psychedelic disco epic, a massive-sounding song that contains warm synthesizers and clever, sad lyrics about why he can’t figure his life out. “Eventually” ingeniously alternates between hard-hitting, distorted guitar riffs and light, 80s-inspired synth melodies. Best of all is “The Less I Know The Better”, an emotionally devastating Michael Jackson tribute with the best melodies Tame Impala has ever created. All of these songs have incredibly catchy and groovy basslines; the bass might be Parker’s biggest strength. His greatness has never been more evident.

8. Vince Staples | Summertime ’06

Summertime-06The opening lines of Vince Staples’ epic, angry debut album Summertime ’06 can be thought of as the project’s mission statement. “I’m just a n****, until I fill my pockets/ Then I’m ‘Mr. N****’, they follow me while shopping,” spits Staples, his trademark deadpan flow highlighting the seriousness of his situation. More than just about any other MC today, Staples is obsessed with the idea of “keeping it real”, the listener can practically feel his eyes boring into their skin. Summertime ’06 a double album that ends in under an hour, a hyper-concentrated look into the life and experiences of Vince Staples. The beats are hard and spacious; this is No ID’s best work behind the turntables since the 90s.

For children, true fear isn’t seeing their parents angry at them; it’s seeing little to no emotion in response to their action. That’s how I felt listening to this record; he’s leaving it up to the listener to make their own opinions about what he’s saying. The best tracks on the album have no soft edges; “Norf Norf” and “Señorita” are some of the hardest rap songs of the year. There’s no “Hands Up” on Summertime ’06, no song of the year contender. Just 60 minutes of thoughtful, intelligent, occasionally violent gangsta rap.

7. Grimes | Art Angels

grimes_-_art_angelsWhat an album cycle! The seeming eternal lead-up to Grimes’ fourth album (and second major-label project) only added to the mystery and intrigue of her ethereal and experimental pop music. After huge amounts of praise from independent music websites like Pitchfork, not only for her album Visions but for singles like “Oblivion”, music fans were chomping at the bit for any sign of Grimes’ material. And they finally got in in the summer of 2014, with the dubstep-EDM infused “Go”. While I enjoyed the track, I (and many others) believed that Grimes could do so much more with her previously-established sound, and she agreed — she allegedly scrapped an album’s worth of material after the negative reception of “Go”. When she released the demo version of “REALiTi”, it seemed like a natural progression to accessibility from the experimental pop she had released before.

Art Angels is somehow simultaneously exactly what we expected and a complete surprise. It’s accessible pop music but made with such a deft producer’s touch that there’s enough going on to hear new things on every subsequent listen. It also helps that the lyricism and attitudes expressed on the album are super badass; sweet, psychedelic tracks like “Artangels” and “Pin” are counterbalanced with expressions of female- and self-empowerment. “Kill v. Maim”, in particular, is a highlight: it’s the best song Grimes has ever made. Art Angels is a poptimist’s dream: Grimes’ love for modern top 40 radio melds perfectly with her love for experimental production.

6. The Mountain Goats | Beat The Champ

The_mountain_goats_-_beat_the_champProfessional wrestling (the “fake” WWE-style scripted kind) has long been a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s somewhat enigmatic in that it has an extremely loyal and passionate fanbase, yet gets little to no national media coverage. I’ve always been embarrassed to follow WWE closely, but luckily it’s become en vogue to actually express passion for things! And there’s no greater musical love letter to the art of professional wrestling than The Mountain Goats’ Beat The Champ, which compartmentalizes all of the theatrics and showboating of a WWE event into a musically varied and clever package.

The romanticization of professional wrestling in this album is stunning. For example, on the opener, the beautiful and simple “Southwestern Territory”, The Mountain Goats explore the life of a young wrestler running in place on a regional circuit, searching for that big break; unfortunately, tonight, he’s been booked to take the loss. “Climb the turnbuckle high/ take two falls out of three/ black out for local TV,” lead singer John Darnielle sings. The album gets personal as well; on “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”, Darnielle talks about Guerrero, his childhood idol, and how Chavo was a better role model than Darnielle’s stepfather ever was. “He was my hero back when I was a kid/ You let me down but Chavo never once did/ You called him names to try to get beneath my skin/ Now your ashes are scattered on the wind.” It evokes images of John Cena, who’s granted more Make-A-Wish wishes than any other person. Professional wrestling is great.

5. Tobias Jesso Jr. | Goon

packshot2In an era of musical complexity and maximalism, it’s been refreshing to see the rapid rise of singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr. The Vancouver-via-L.A. crooner rose to fame after the release of a few lo-fi piano ballads, “True Love” and “Just A Dream”. These songs are beautiful, and their release showed the raw emotional power of a man and his piano. And man, does he rock that piano. The melodies deftly played on Goon, especially on album highlights “Can’t Stop Thinking About You”  and “Leaving LA”, are some of the prettiest I’ve ever heard. Jesso’s lyricism and songwriting is fairly rudimentary, but the vocals are performed with such gusto and anguish that it’s hard to imagine an improvement. Goon is a simple album, one that is just as likely to make you fall asleep as it is likely to make you cry.

4. Donnie Trumpet and the Social ExperimentSurf 

dkje1kk7Our first taste of Surf was a teaser video that featured model and actress Cara Delevingne and the instrumental track “Nothing Came To Me”. It was unlike anything we’d ever heard from Chance The Rapper, who moonlights as a member of Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment. More specifically, he didn’t even appear on the song — it was a cacophony of brass that didn’t seem to have much organization or structure. While the track was (and still is) beautiful, it didn’t exactly match what Chance had been working on in previous projects. I had worries about what we were going to get from the long-anticipated Surf.

Luckily, Surf exceeded all expectations. It remains an exercise in emotion, one that can have the listener feel elation and despair, serenity and agitation all throughout a single play. The arrangements and live instrumentation are stunning (who would’ve thought that flutes would complement drill rapper King Louie so well?) and all guests, of which there are plenty, bring their best stuff. It’s all wrapped up by the beautiful “Sunday Candy” which is (in my opinion) the best song of the year. Best of all, it’s free on iTunes. There’s no reason not to listen to this album.

Read my full review here.

3. Julien Baker | Sprained Ankle

Julien-Baker-Sprained-AnkleSprained Ankle, the debut from teenaged Tennessee singer-songwriter Julien Baker, sometimes cuts so deep that it feels like an intrusion of privacy. With devastating lyrics such as “I’m a pile of filthy wreckage you will wish you’d never touched,” and “Ask aloud why you’re leaving, but the pavement won’t answer me; I know I meant nothing,” it can be uncomfortable to listen to. When compounded with Baker’s voice, which is simultaneously steely and tough while sounding like she’s on the verge of tears, many will simply want to turn the music off. But the sweet, somber folk instrumentals and Baker’s understated charisma kept me listening. I invested in her experiences; sad at the low moments, elated at the few moments that look up.

The closer, the stunning “Go Home”, samples a classic Southern baptist preacher imploring the audience to read Peter’s speech in the book of Acts while a classic church hymn is played on the piano in the background. This was the most powerful musical moment of the year for me, and I bawled like a baby at the final few lines: “Peter sits on the bench as a judge; He was always a judge: He is, now, a judge.” Sprained Ankle exposes Julien Baker to harsh judgment, and the raw experience of listening to this album is nearly unmatched.

2. Father John Misty | I Love You, Honeybear

8a2cb994From everything I’ve seen, Josh Tillman (a.k.a. Father John Misty) is a cynical, self-important narcissist who thinks himself superior to all others. And that might be the case, or it might be a part of his act. Either way, it’s a testament to the strength and emotional power of his second album, I Love You, Honeybear, that his attitudes don’t keep me away from his music. The hopelessly romantic Father John Misty that appears on tracks like “Chateau Lobby #4” and “I Went To The Store One Day” is offset by the extreme cynicism of “Bored In The USA” and “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment”. It’s all tied together with beautiful orchestral arrangements and the best lyricism of any artist all year. This album is a treat, whether you’re in it for the humor, romanticism, or beauty.

Read my full review here.

1. Kendrick Lamar | To Pimp A Butterfly

homepage_large.d47a5880The Black experience, in 2015 America, is one of incredible strife. Black people are systematically oppressed, whether through incarceration rates or police brutality. People who would applaud Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. for protesting racism and oppression are doing the opposite for protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore. Blacks are being told, essentially, this: your strife is a problem unless it’s an inconvenience to me.

Kendrick Lamar’s second masterpiece, To Pimp A Butterfly, isn’t an album about the Black experience as a whole; it’s an extremely personal album, with devastatingly heavy issues and occurrences. But it’s become an album of anthems for those who experience oppression in America. Singles like “King Kunta”, “The Blacker The Berry”, and “Alright” are powerful, cutting songs about Kendrick’s personal experiences as a Black man. “My knees getting weak, my gun might blow, but we gon’ be alright,” Kendrick sighs on the hook on the latter; there is a light in the dark, but right now, it’s almost impossible to see.

Read my full review here.

* * *

What a phenomenal year in music. Did you like these albums? Did I miss any? Give me a comment or let me know on twitter @KlynParker.

 

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