Once again in 2015, even with all the Snapchatting and Instagramming and yelling “what are thooose” at people on the street, society managed to keep making extended, considered bodies of music. We don’t get it either. We fully expected that we’d be here at the end of the year aimlessly riding around on those hoverboard scooters serving up a list of the best vape flavors while white noise branded by a soft drink company played over our office speakers.
As it turns out, though, 2015 was great for music. Like, really good. Like, agonizingly good in way that made us all want to fight each other when we got in a room to argue about our favorite albums. How could we pick just 50? We are tyrants, really.
But like any good tyrants, it’s our duty to impose our will on the world, and, just as we have already authoritatively decided who the artists of the year are and what the best songs of the year are, so, too, do we want to encourage everyone to listen to the shit out of these albums. They’re all so good that even if our worst fears prove to be true and the album finally dies its long-forecasted death in 2016 and the only music left is a GIF of DJ Khaled they will all be worth holding onto or at least storing somewhere in the cloud. So, anyway, go ahead and get mad now. These are the 50 best albums of 2015.
50. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material
On Pageant Material, Kacey Musgraves has left behind the road trip dreams of Same Trailer, Different Park and returned home to reflect on where she’s been and what she learned during her time on the road. If her first album was a teenager, with high hopes, a devil may care attitude, and a hard and fast interpretation of the world, then her second album finds her reigning in and reflecting on her roots and what life is really all about. “Biscuits” is her continuing the ideal of “Follow Your Arrow,” but “Dime Store Cowgirl,” “Pageant Material” and “Are You Sure” shows us a Musgraves who’s seen it all but still loves where she’s from.
49. The Internet – Ego Death
When Odd Future became a thing of the past, not many people thought that The Internet would become the force that they are. Syd and the band started off down their new path tepidly, but 2015 was the year they finally found their own voice. Lush production from the band accompanied by the heaven-sent vocals of Syd made this project the perfect soundtrack for everything from long drives down the beach to all-night painting sessions. The Internet may have proven with Ego Death that they could potentially have more staying power than the actual internet if they can keep this level of work up.
48. Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness
For the past several years, Julia Holter has been seemingly crafting a timeline and record of how strange pop can be, and what tools and instruments have made it so. But instead of incorporating and subverting nostalgia, Have You In My Wilderness presents Holter’s purest of melodies and compositions. It moves the subversion of other outside sources of music that have become ubiquitous like the grandest of MGM musicals, it turns its sights in on itself to only rely on its own work to showcase strangeness.
47. HEALTH – Death Magic
Following 2009’s Get Color, LA's HEALTH took a break from traditional albums to compose the acclaimed video game soundtrack to Max Payne 3. The stylistic departure in many ways brought them more success—financial, above all—than their stage-ready synth noise sound, and that scored approach is evident on their return with Death Magic. It’s a surreal but restrained effort that hones their noise roots that are very much still there—just try not to headbang to “STONEFIST,” one of the best rage anthems since, well, HEALTH’s own “Die Slow.” While some fans knocked it for taking a sleeker, more danceable, and really more pop, approach with songs like “L.A. Looks” and “Drugs Exist,” Death Magic rewards repeated listening. Its cleanness is very much its intent, and layers upon layers of vocal harmonies, syncopation, and carefully-crafted dissonance are part of the meticulous puzzle that amounts to an eerily abstruse whole. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, in the exactly the creepy, plastic, disconnected way they intended.
46. Shamir – Ratchet
Artists like Shamir—a 19-year-old gender-nonconforming kid from North Las Vegas with an immaculate falsetto and face-slapping production—don’t just happen. And yet, that’s exactly what it seemed when Shamir Bailey arrived with Ratchet, an artist fully-formed appearing amoebically amidst the industrial desert sprawl. The reality is, of course, more complex than that, but it’s what can happen sometimes in the weird neon pressure cooker of Southern Nevada. Bailey joins a healthy lineage of musicians whose isolation fuels their creativity, but Ratchet’s ascent this year marks the arrival of a critically important voice for the post-Tumblr generation. Confident even in its most vulnerable moments, the album is both an excellent dance record that culls from house, disco, and R&B, and pure pop soul that you can put on and let go from start to finish. It’s a record that hails from the Andrew W.K. party-of-one school of self-love, and it serves up body-moving, visionary surrealness. May we all come to know ourselves so well.
45. Title Fight – Hyperview
The mainstream crossover is an oft-criticized move for punk bands to make, and Title Fight took this to heart in their new record, Hyperview. The band seemingly ditched the high-volume pop punk bouts they had previously been known for, settling on throwing themselves head first into a new kind of reverb-laden sound and vibe. Such a move would sink other bands, but unexpectedly, it lad the charge for all former hardcore kids to pick up old Swervedriver records and finetune their sound, after seeing what Title Fight was able to do with airy and warm tracks like “Your Pain Is Mine Now” and “Rose Of Sharon.” But unlike an army of pretenders, Title Fight kept their music ever-progressive, moving forward into some lush post-punk apocalypse of cool despair.
44. Justin Bieber – Purpose
Let’s swipe left on the Bieber redemption arc thinkpieces and focus on the music for a second. This year, we witnessed the impeccable roll out of Justin Bieber: Serious Pop Star. Blindsided by the boingy genius of “Where Are Ü Now,” what followed was a drip, drip, drip of bangers—the metronome-panpipe perfection of “What Do You Mean?” and the tropi-pop of “Sorry”—to prove this was no one-off. And then there was the Ed Sheeran-assisted “Love Yourself.” Mince his words? He minced them alright, and then retooled them to form an icy, emotionless slap set to sting for all eternity. In line with all big name coming of age records, Bieber’s crack team of featured artists is top notch—Nas, Travis Scott, Big Sean, Tumblr-pop princess Halsey, along with of-the-moment pop architects, Diplo, Skrillex, Bloodpop (formerly Blood Diamonds), and Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd. So it’s a shame that Bieber’s biggest misstep came down to a silly little oopsie like editing. Purpose would’ve ranked a lot higher here if the 21-year-old had nixed the two too many God-bothering tunes, “Mark My Words,” “Trust,” and the EDM-twitchy “Children.” Really, they should've swapped those songs out with the deluxe edition standouts—“Been You” and “Get to Used to It” and “We Are”—and doubled down on slick hits. Even so, 2015 is Year Zero for Biebs—the moment actual grown-ups found themselves succumbing to Bieber Fever. Step aside tweens, you’re gonna have to share your hairless wunderkind with the rest of us.
—Kim Taylor Bennett
43. Tyler, The Creator – Cherry Bomb
Tyler the Creator’s Cherry Bomb isn't a great album. Being frank, we're not totally sure it's a good one, but it's made it on this list for its uncompromising musical vision, sonically and thematically. If Tyler wants to blow out your speakers a la the frenetic fubar of the title track, well that's what you're going to get—or just as easily slow it down with the Stevie Wonder-esque “Find Your Wings.” Again, none of these elements work half as well in their execution, but there's a charm to the madness of Cherry Bomb that makes for a satisfying slow burn for the patient listener. Even though that’s probably not want most Tyler fans want to hear. Oh well.
42. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Style
Matador’s recent signee Will Toledo delivered one of the strongest debut records of the year with his sleeper masterpiece Teens of Style. Pegged as Guided by Voices for millennials, the 23-year-old songwriter from Virginia pens lo-fi pop songs so deeply anxious that Robert Pollard is probably somewhere drop-kicking in approval. The blown-out fuzz that hovers throughout the record is meant to obscure such lyrical confessions like “I want to kick my Dad in the shins” on the standout track “Something Soon” to admitting, “When I was a kid I fell in love with Michael Stipe.” (As if Toledo’s charming obsession with R.E.M.-style college rock wasn’t obvious already.) Listening to Teens of Style by Car Seat Headrest is like reading a diary left open but with the words crossed out. He wants you to read him, but not unless you care enough to try.
41. Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer
Much of the fun of being a music fan is watching an artist grow from album to album. The personal experiences musicians go through between albums always show up on their next release, and sometimes those personal experiences radically change the material that makes up an album.
This is part of what makes Speedy Ortiz’s last release, Foil Deer, such a remarkable album. Songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist Sadie Dupuis found herself tired of writing about relationships and getting fucked up all the time, and focused her energy toward what’s going on in the world. That refocus gave us songs like “Raising Skate,” and “My Dead Girl,” two very powerful songs about what it’s like to be a woman who exists in society in 2015.
40. Mgla – Exercises in Futility
Mgla’s last album, With Hearts Towards None, introduced the Polish duo to a much wider audience than their previous released has enjoyed, and now, the follow-up has seen them reach even higher. The band—whose name is pronounced “M-gwah”—seems grateful (if a bit nonplussed) for the increased attention, and Exercises in Futility deserves every drop of ink that’s been spilled extolling its virtues. Mgla operate on the orthodox side of black metal (replete with an icy Second Wave atmosphere ripped straight from De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas), but have seen fit to augment their more traditional compositions with a firm melodic backbone and rollocking tempos that verge upon straight-up black’n’roll. Their approach is simple, but it works; Exercises in Futility is certainly a depressive album, often beautifully so, but all hyperbole and extrapolation aside, they just write really good black metal songs—and now, more people than ever are listening.
39. Thundercat – The Beyond/Where Giants Roam
2015 will be remembered by many to be the year that Brainfeeder records pledged to get young people to listen to jazz, and they don’t make it hard to fall in love. One of the most poignant releases in this stable was Thundercat’s EP, The Beyond/Where Giants Roam. Thundercat, or Stephen Bruner, forced a field of emotions to listeners, bringing out a wide range of guests to augment his sound. Compactness is key here, the big-city isolationism of its lead single “Them Changes” packs tight jazz influences and elements into a poppy, three-minute track. The poppiness and immediate appeal flips right around with the progression and technique of “Lone Wolf and Cub,” a song that defines best the idea of music as a journey. These compositions and works build to form the full piece; emotion and catharsis in the length of a long shower.
38. Björk – Vulnicura
Björk has made it very clear that her ninth album Vulnicura is meant to be an interactive art piece. From its 3D virtual reality music video for the first single "Stonemilker" to its corresponding exhibit at MOMA in New York, Björk pulled out all the stops for this record. By collaborating with the avant-pop producer Arca and The Haxan Cloak, Vulnicura rides on a particular, synth-ridden chill: The looping string sections create an echo so deep and glassy that it mirrors the terrain of Björk's beloved Iceland. Considering the singer's recent environmental activism, it makes sense that Vulnicura would take its shape from the natural world. Of course the songs titled “Black Lake” and “Quicksand” are emotional metaphors for the album's over-arching break-up narrative, but it’s hard not to see how they also address the changing climate as it's clearly on her mind.
37. Laura Stevenson – Cocksure
Laura Stevenson’s music is what happens when a person with a penchant for self-deprecation also knows how to write perfectly crafted pop songs. Cocksure, like the rest of Stevenson’s catalog, showcases her ability to make even the darkest sentiments sound fun. While she does get this wonderfully weird juxtaposition across on songs like “Jellyfish,” there are also a few outright crushers where Stevenson dips into darker places, musically. On “Ticker Tape,” for example, she unleashes one of Cocksure’s saddest lines on top of one of its saddest melodies: “Make ticker-tape from my minor vita / Come on and watch it fly / Watch it 'til it's high and gone.” This album can bring you joy, or it can crush your heart, depending on which side of it you look at.
36. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.
If the songs on Barnett’s kind-of debut A Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas were largely about the apathy, anxiety, and deviations of entering adulthood, Sometimes I Sit and Think, her first proper LP, is the sobering “So what now?” realization that you are, in fact, a grown up. The odes to late night benders and masturbation diss tracks have ceded to songs about shopping for homes and the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. She’s hardly the only artist out there to tackle existential mundanity—cough, Father John Misty, cough—but she does so with such understated honesty and grace that they feel poignant rather than angsty. It’s Barnett at her most thoughtful. The music has also matured—“Small Poppies” offers one of the best slow-burning guitar solos of the year, while the ominous “Kim’s Caravan” swaddles you in isolating feedback. It’s a strong case for skipping the party and spending the night in alone with her.
35. Holly Herndon – Platform
On paper, there isn’t much that seems accessible about Platform, a record of experimental electronic compositions that includes spoken word pieces and little obvious semblance of traditional melody. But listening to it is a profoundly familiar experience. Herndon merges the controlled, cerebral intent of her Stanford PhD composition background with the visceral, saturated, and impulsive nature of the dance music that first inspired her. The result is music that doesn’t necessarily align itself with any particular set of emotions, but feels deeply human. By culling from all of this, she forges a path into new musical territory, something that might even approximate a sort of stylistic singularity. It is not, like most music is, a dialogue—an artist creating something and presenting it to an audience to be consumed and responded to. Listening to it is an experience that, as she put it, creates multiple “points of entry.” It’s music you can sit inside of. Holly Herndon might be the only artist making music today that sounds completely original and born from its time. Combining pop sensibilities, dance beats, experimental electronic techniques, and some of the most sophisticated sound technology available, Platform is, both literally and figuratively, the sound of 2015.
34. Disclosure – Caracal
Yes, yes Disclosure’s Caracal isn’t the second coming of UK house revival but if you truly expected such a thing well, that’s your fault—especially because in its stead the album hosts some of the best pop, yes pop, songs of the year, all on one project. “Nocturnal” marries sparse, skin-tingling synths with the high tenor of The Weeknd while the Lawrence brothers somehow coax Lorde into making a song about adultery and it all sounds so… beautiful. And sure, it doesn’t push the experimental house/pop hybrid of their debut, but it's a concise and consistent body of work that glides smoothly from top to bottom and rightfully deserves to be called one of 2015’s best. Plus “Moving Mountains” is a master class in how to properly build to a satisfying climax.
33. Iron Maiden – Book of Souls
2015 will go down as one of the most triumphant years of Iron Maiden’s career—no small feat when discussing a band that’s been consistently kicking ass since 1975. Book of Souls is the lads from London’s sixteenth studio album, and their first since 2010’s The Final Frontier. Quite a lot happened during that five-year recording hiatus (including the release of multiple compilations, boxsets, and at least two live albums), most notably vocalist Bruce Dickinson’s successful fight against cancer—and not just any kind of cancer, throat cancer. The air raid siren survived the battle intact, and sounds stronger than he has in years, lending his revered wail to a series of ambitious epics (none more so than the 18-minute “Empire of The Clouds”). Book of Souls is definitely a bit more progressive and self-indulgent than their earlier albums, and there’s fat that could’ve been trimmed (“Tears of a Clown?” C’mon, guys), but overall, it’s a solid, fan-pleasing showing. Iron Maiden is still the greatest heavy metal band in the world, and they don’t intend to let us forget it.
32. Tame Impala – Currents
The devil’s in the details here: the punctuating handclaps and snare rolls on “Let It Happen,” the unexpected banjo from “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” that damn bassline on “The Less I Know the Better,” the way “Disciples” sounds like it’s beamed from an underwater speaker until a light switch flicks at 44 seconds in. Perhaps it’s not so surprising given Kevin Parker is King Geek—obsessively constructing, playing, and producing every note and noodle of his three-record strong catalogue, but Currents is a galaxy apart. The hazy psych-pop and barely decipherable lyrics that characterized previous collections have been replaced by a high-def sheen, expertly applied keys (Synth! Organ! Harpsichord!), and unexpected emotional lucidity. “Yes, I’m Changing” is the plushest, most posi break up-and-move-along song ever penned, while the aforementioned LP opener, “Let It Happen,” manages to sound both tightly coiled and luxuriously expansive. There’s no excess here, not one bum note. Currents is one of the most nuanced examples inventive pop songwriting this year, and yet for all its precision and technical panache, this record is all feeling.
—Kim Taylor Bennett
31. Dilly Dally – Sore
This blunt-force grunge album from Toronto’s Dilly Dally is more than a 90s throw-back. In fact, it strips the plastic wrap off of everything trendy about the 90s revival and reminds you what made grunge rock so good in the first place, and that's pure, unadulterated angst. Even the screeching feedback that kicks off the record is no match for the fiery, deep-seated roar of new-comer Katie Monks: Her apathy is boiling and she’s a kettle to the mic. But it’s not just the sound of Monks’ voice or the piercing guitars that make Sore feel so raw. The lyrics grate at Monks’ vexed desires with verses like “I miss you, the ballin’ chain.” Every song on Dilly Dally’s powerful debut—starting with the explosive lead single “Desire” to the aforementioned “Ballin Chain”—scrapes against loving what might kill you in the end.
30. A$AP Rocky – AT. LONG. LAST. A$AP
In his short career, A$AP Rocky established himself as an artist who’s doing everything he can to not be restricted by however we’ve traditionally defined “rapper.” After using the Tumblr hype wave to launch his career with his excellent original mixtape LIVE.LONG.A$AP, Rocky’s proper debut LONG.LIVE.A$AP—which featured a hodgepodge of features that were a bit random and a sound that wasn’t very focused—felt like a bit of a letdown. So heading into 2015, as the world waited for a follow-up from the boy from Harlem, some doubted Rocky could deliver a project that lived up to the original hype he generated. On top of that, early in 2015, A$AP Yams—Rocky’s longtime mentor, best friend, and business partner—died from a drug overdose. And yet, the question remained: Under the pressure to put out a great record, now without his brother, would Rocky come through? The answer was, simply, yes. AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP is an 18-track album that feels like it was birthed in the 70s, embracing a psychedelic nature that sometimes doesn’t even feel like a rap record. ALLA’s swirling nature wraps the listener in a sonic bliss, all haunted by the overarching theme of loss. Yams’ fingerprints are still all over ALLA, but Rocky proved he could provide a clear vision needed to make a project that was his own.
29. Empress Of – Me
Created alone in a rural Mexican town, classified as a pueblo magic (a magic place), Empress of’s Me is a self-reliant pop record with more guts than a butcher’s shop window. From the beefed up drums, to every throbbing synth, the moment you play Me, you’ve wandered through the wooden door on Lorely Rodriguez’s forehead; you are inside her stories. There’s the obsessive love tale of “Everything Is You” delivered via James Blake-trill vocals, the ballsy stomp and thump of “Standard,” and “Water Water,” which foregoes any sort of chorus in favor of a balearic house drop more akin to the small hours of a Croatian dance festival. It’s no shock that Lorely Rodriguez has the moxie and talent to pull off a record like this alone—aside from having a voice like a human harp, she studied production and engineering at Berklee —but that doesn’t make Me any less impressive as a mind-blowing artefact of artistic individuality. It’s a wonder what a buttload of isolation can do to a person’s self-reliance and resolve, eliminating the possibility of ever turning to someone and saying, “Yo, do you think this sounds okay?” The lesson of this album, kids, is: leave town more, use Facebook less.
28. Cloud Rat – Qliphoth
Cloud Rat’s previous album, Moksha, was a watershed release for the band; it catapulted a hitherto underground grindcore band from outside Detroit into the apple of the music media’s eye, and anticipation understandably ran high for the follow-up. Released by Halo of Flies on May 29 (with a CD release handled by IFB, 7Degrees, React With Protest, and Moment of Collapse) Qliphoth once again sees the band embrace an aggressive melange of grind, sludge, atmospheric doom, post-rock, and noise, shoehorning 17 tracks of righteous fury into 40 emotional minutes. While it rages and roars aplenty over skittering grind beats, the album’s greatest strength lies in its measured moments of melodic quiet—like on “Raccoon,” that see Madison execute gritted-teeth howl atop post-rock textures, or the ghostly choral effect on “Thin Vein.” Cloud Rat has always been a great grindcore band, but as they’ve shown before and make very clear now, they’ve surpassed genre. They’re just great.
27. Young Thug – Barter 6
Young Thug subverts sound, image, reality, and every expectation, including ones about what a “debut album” is supposed to be. In what will probably be remembered as one of the most smart-ass moves in hip-hop history, he threatened to name his debut record Carter 6 to spite Lil’ Wayne’s Carter V’s continual delay. Other rappers might squirm and calculate every detail of what their marketers and managers want to build them into, but seemingly at a moment’s notice, Thugger will change the entire narrative. But none of it turns out to be fickleness for the sake of it. Instead, you can see how his brain works and how clear and streamlined the vision for what would go on to be named Barter 6. Songs like “With That” show how much his vocals dip and turn, creating a multiple-element chorus and beat. Nearly reflexively, every song on the record connects to Thug’s idiosyncratic world, each beat melting into his vocals to create a thrilling hip-hop symbiosis.
26. Drake – If You're Reading This It’s Too Late
Good old Drake, consistently putting out music to varying degrees of uber-success. This year was a weird one for Toronto’s favourite rapper, who decided to open 2015 with a surprise mixtape that (surprise!) sounded like nothing he had ever done before, an angrier and harder showcase for his ability to, uh, write raps. There were guaranteed hits, like the anthemic “Know Yourself” and the PARTYNEXTDOOR-assisted “Preach,” but it was far from a pop gesture in a year when Drake kept stumbling into more pop stardom. Perhaps DJ Drama, who set out to make another Gangsta Grillz installment, is to blame for the mixtape-like quality that made it feel more like a collection of singles than the fully immersive experience his other albums have led us to expect from the 6 God. But that didn’t stop songs like “10 Bands” and “Energy” from becoming amazing standalone achievements in the canon of Drake tracks for people to angrily yell at the club, and it speaks to Drake’s greatness that he was able to make fuck around and make a project that still sounds this cool.
25. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
The cornerstones of Sufjan Stevens’ timeline between Illinois and now are The BQE, a mixed-medium exploration of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and The Age of Adz, his sixth album and first to work heavily with electronic instruments. Both possess a chaotic grandeur that informed an evolutionary period spent collaborating with rappers, releasing Christmas albums, and integrating a medley of interpretive dance, angel wings, and dayglo space suits into his live performances. Off the back of all that, Carrie & Lowell felt like a particularly heartbreaking reality check. Song after first-person song, Stevens is stripped back to his most intimate form. Gone is the orchestral backing and the captivating melodrama. Instead, we’re offered straightforward songwriting and an unobtrusive accompaniment of banjo, acoustic guitar, and piano. Thematically, it deals with the death of his mother in 2012 after a life complicated by schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse, and it navigates her presence through his own memories. But for all its melancholy, Carrie & Lowell is far from being a heavy album. It’s a masterpiece of forgiveness; love and light in the face of life’s unpredictable dark.
24. Vince Staples – Summertime 06
At 20 tracks (and considered as a double album), Summertime 06 is a long listen. Yet it’s so brittle that it feels like it could snap in a second. Track’s like the album’s opener “Lift Me Up” or “Jump Off The Roof” burst into action with immediacy, cutting stark, blunt figures. It’s an album that resides in realism: Staples documents life in Long Beach, California in a dark, cold tone, away from the state’s omnipresent sunshine. That’s not to say it’s not upbeat in its own way, though. Only a deaf person could defy “Norf Norf”’s turn-up quality or Staples’ ability to expertly narrate a story. And it’s at this intersection that Summertime 06’s appeal lies. As Craig Jenkins surmised in our review of the record earlier this year, “the darkness isn’t the story; it’s what you do in it, how you find your way out of it, that counts.”
23. Little Simz – A Curious Tale Of Trials + Persons
What’s most impressive about this record is there is absolutely no precedent for it. A biographical, big idea hip-hop album by a young British female, no club tracks, most songs scored minimally, veering between soft spoken word and radically aggressive outbursts. What can you compare that to? Certainly nothing that’s come from the UK in recent memory.
The record’s success comes in the way Simz sidesteps all the cringey stereotypes of UK hip-hop. There’s even one track, “Tainted,” the smartly parodies that kind of thing, Simz slugglishly joshing, “I've been like this from early from when I was teething / How I'm feeling, play my shit at parties, not museums.”
For the rest of the record, her flow is tightly wound, pulling back to the beat and then letting it rip like human Hot Wheels. It works, especially as she races across blurry, shattered production and bruising storytelling. What sticks out most is the emotional engagement with its characters, a track about someone falling into homelessness and hopelessness, Simz embodies their being, spitting, “Dark clouds nigga a fuck a rainbow / Nobody talk until I say so / I just might sell my soul if it’s worth anything / But, we’ll see how the day goes.”
22. Kamasi Washington – The Epic
When people talk about modern jazz, it’s often with the asterisk of historical context and references, as if the genre can only exist relative to its development. Even the term itself—“modern jazz”—implies the amalgamation of all that came before it. But you don’t have to know about jazz, or even like it, to be moved by Kamasi Washington’s tremendous, aptly-named, three-hour-long debut, The Epic. On it, the staple of LA’s rich but insular jazz scene steps out from behind the shadows of his more mainstream collaborators like Kendrick Lamar and Brainfeeder label boss Flying Lotus to helm a 20-person choir and 32-piece orchestra (which includes list-mate Thundercat). The result is a listening experience that’s as generous as it is overwhelming. Its compositions are meticulous, but its feel is telescopic. You could teach a whole class on the artists it pays tribute to—from the screaming saxes of A Love Supreme-era John Coltrane to the 70s fusion of Weather Report to the meandering ambition of free jazz pioneer Albert Ayler—but there’s nothing clinical about it. Its conviction and spirituality have as much in common with Lamar and Fela Kuti as they do with Washington’s more traditional analogs. Instead of pandering to our era of 140-character information overload, the album’s 173 minutes challenge you to trust your emotional intelligence and just feel it. And it’s for that reason that The Epic brings the conversation surrounding jazz firmly into the present, dropping any qualifiers to give us a sense of what innovators like Coltrane and Ayler and Miles Davis might have heard while first forging their own souls in brass: just jazz.
21. Future – 56 Nights
Future’s DS2 is the blockbuster novel that finally made the Atlanta rapper click for the masses (or, rather, the unfortunate plebes in the world who hadn’t previously experienced his glory). But for those in the world who’ve been card-carrying members of the #FutureHive for years, Nayvadius gave us 56 Nights. Here we have nine explosive tracks—one of which is “March Madness,” a song so good that having this project this low on this list feels slightly disrespectful—that, collectively, are the sonic equivalent of doing racks upon racks of cocaine. Named after DJ Esco’s terrifying 56-night jail sentence in Dubai, this is music not meant for soft ears. This is music for the revolution. 56 Nights doesn’t fuck around with attempting to be deep or emotional—instead, it’s driven by the pure chaos. “Money keep a nigga motivated / molly keep a nigga motivated,” Future spits. “Percocet keep a nigga motivated / good drank keep a nigga motivated.” 56 Nights is frustration. 56 Nights is darkness. 56 Nights is anger. 56 Nights is life.
20. Desaparecidos – Payola
If there was any knock to be made on Desaparecidos’ otherwise perfect 2002 album Read Music/Speak Spanish, it was that it was too Omaha. The band’s brilliantly crafted songs chronicling the growing pains and local politics of their hometown were almost enviable from a national perspective. How about directing some of that energy outwards, dudes? Fortunately, when Conor Oberst and crew returned for their lonnnnng-awaited sophomore album, Payola, 13 years later, they did just that. Each of the record’s 14 songs is a self-contained indictment of a large-scale American problem, which, unfortunately for the country but fortunately for music, there is no shortage of. Failed healthcare systems, institutionalized xenophobia, and Wall Street bro culture all feel the vengeful and sometimes wonderfully sarcastic hand of Desaparecidos. Not to mention that sonically, Payola is about as solid of a distortion-heavy rock record as you’re gonna get.
19. J Hus – The 15th Day
If Fetty Wap’s sing-song flow and irresistible debut hit made him the surprise breakout star of US hip-hop this year, then J Hus is certainly his UK counterpart, even making nods to “Trap Queen” on this, his debut mixtape. His smart interplay of Jamaican and West Africans influences with his South London upbringing has created a whole new sound, melodic and gnarly, heard everywhere from carnival to house parties. His track “Dem Boy Paigon,” his “Trap Queen,” provokes a riot whenever it’s dropped.
But there is a danger about getting too earnest about J Hus’s melting pot of genres. Because what makes the record great is that it’s jokes. J Hus is one of those special artists who can get girls dancing to tunes about how much he wants to rag them out, perfectly crafted choruses hiding slick humor. Whether it’s “I’m Coming,” a song about a posh girl with street smarts (“I fell in love with a girl with a double-barrelled, I fell in love with a girl with a double-barrell”) or inter-racial romance (“my niggas love champers and cash, I need a white girl, I love me some bangers and mash) Hus can not be matched for punchlines you can shake a leg to.
Fetty Wap ended the year one of the biggest stars in America, J Hus is a way off that—he hasn’t even had a song on the radio yet. But The 15th Day is a spectacular statement of intent: if anyone was still wondering who the next huge British MC was going to be, after this there can be no question.
18. Nicole Dollanganger – Natural Born Losers
Nicole Dollanganger has been releasing music through Bandcamp since 2013, but when Grimes got wind of her first studio album earlier this year, she launched her own sort-of-label just to put it out, stating, “It's a crime against humanity for this music not to be heard.” Landing somewhere between Jewel and Nine Inch Nails, Dollanganger keeps her doll collection on one side of her bedroom and her gun collection on the other and aims to make art that is simultaneously “gross and pretty.” Her first video featured leather-clad guys eating messy desserts and making out in an empty baseball field, and the album opens with a story about her shooting an angel out of the sky with her father’s rifle, watching it bleed out, and hanging it up as a trophy. She may be Canadian, but weaving together snapshots of trailer park romance, police brutality, alligators, and religious iconography, Dollanganger has crafted some of the most striking tales of American tragedy in recent memory.
17. Fetty Wap – Fetty Wap
The most common complaint people have about Fetty Wap’s debut album is that every song sounds the same. Well you’re goddamn right they do, because what purpose would he have for messing with a formula that guarantees perfection? Asking a man who had three songs chart on the Billboard 100 without an album to his name to stop doing what he’s doing is ridiculous, and it’s thrilling that he didn’t follow those orders. Categorizing this as a rap album is unfair to Fetty Wap, who exclusively makes songs about falling in love and treating your significant other with care. Fetty Wap is the artist that labels tried to turn Future into with Honest, only this time it wasn’t forced at all. “Time” is a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on Bieber’s Journals project, complete with the acoustic string outro and heartfelt lyrics, and the fact that the absolutely monstrous “Boomin” follows, it speaks to the range that Fetty Wap could achieve, despite his being a one-dimensional artist. Hopefully next year we’ll stop talking about Fetty Wap making the same type of song over and over and talk about something that matters: like how he’s the best one-eyed rapper to ever make love songs.
16. Kehlani – You Should Be Here
Even in today’s pop-friendly era, a stereotype persists of pop artists as manufactured, shallow, and not in control of their own image. But there’s no risk of making that mistake with Kehlani, the Oakland R&B singer who, if there is justice in the world, will be the genre’s next crossover star. She has the warm, frank approachability of an older sibling sharing advice (even though she was just 20 when these songs were written and recorded), and her music’s intuitive synthesis of hip-hop, funk, and dance-y modern production projects an Internet-era Cali cool that can’t be bought. Matter-of-factly tackling everything from social media jealousy to the heartbreak of her tangled relationship with her mother, her songwriting functions almost as a guide for any young person trying to assert themselves in a world that isn’t particularly interested in what they have to say. Those young people should be happy to have her. With its you-can-do-this-too attitude, You Should Be Here suggests a bold future for music—one that’s earnest, conversational, and empowered. “I say she’s a keeper if she got it on her own and keeps it runnin’,” Kehlani sings at one point. Kehlani is definitely a keeper, and she made the year’s smoothest album. Prayer hands emoji she keeps it running.
15. Beach Slang – The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us
The two initial EPs that Beach Slang released last year laid the groundwork for what the Philadelphia band is about—wide-eyed optimism, nostalgia for the glory days of youth, and an uncompromising faith in the power of music. And on their debut album The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us, not only did they go back to this well, they took a full-on headfirst dive into it. Over ten songs, the band expands on those heart-on-sleeve sentiments that built them an immediate and rabid fanbase—to an almost absurd level, actually. Even the title is the most Beach Slang-y thing the band could’ve chosen. But the ultimate result is a timeless rock record, one that easily could’ve occupied a side of a cassette in your Walkman. And even though the album makes you feel like you're looking back, Beach Slang is happening right now.
14. Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
There are plenty of dark records out there, but none captured the feeling of deep, onset emotional despondency this year quite like Earl Sweatshirt’s third album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. As the title suggests, the record’s ten tracks bottle up being crushed with loneliness, paranoia, obtrusive thoughts, and an unhealthy lack of self-esteem. Earl raps on missing his grandmother; not having a home; shielding his feelings with so much weed that it’s fallen on his shirt like “chicken crumbs.” Yet for such an intense portfolio, IDLSIDGO is an impressively cohesive listen, communicating the claustrophobic, withdrawn depths of the human experience with clarity. By cutting his ties to the outside world, to Odd Future, to his fans’ expectations of what his music should sound like, Earl Sweatshirt made a record that fully set aside any of the early image he projected and felt entirely true to him. Raw, honest, and technically sound, it is an exorcising step into uncharted territory.
13. Sporting Life – 55 5’s
As the production third of New York rap group Ratking, Sporting Life is well known in certain circles for the frenzied soundscapes he creates. Tracks from last year’s So It Goes (like “Canal” or “Remove Ya”) utilize his production to recall nuances from the inner-city environment in the very best way: building beats from police sirens and subway buskers’ brass instruments. One track on his debut solo release 55 5’s called “Pre-order the Dope” continues that approach with a soundboard that seems to have come from the rainforest. Elsewhere though, the record is a chance for Sporting Life to produce beats he would otherwise not be able to make for Ratking. And what a world that is! The absence of a voice gives his work breathing space, forging a groove-laden environment where we’re welcome to recline and kick back for a few hours, soaking in the glow. As a supposed teaser to another full length record, 55 5’s sets the listener up for what could be Selected Ambient Works for this generation’s street-wear wearing, skateboarding, blunt-chuffing collectives.
12. Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete
Humans in the future will probably resemble robots more than we are ready to admit. When the internet and human consciousness become one, and we’re all living in one constant ebb and flow of information, our thoughts and emotions will probably feel like something close to the musical landscape that Oneohtrix Point Never created with his 2015 album Garden of Delete. It’s a world representative of being trapped inside a never-ending stream of data, where moments of triumph are followed immediately by horror or confusion. Artificial instruments provide huge breakdowns and solos, and then retreat into creaks and cracks to offer the full portrait of the hyper-future. In a never-ending super highway of sound, low-art and high art zoom at the same breakneck speed towards meaning.
11. Chris Stapleton – Traveller
As a skilled country singer-songwriter, you have two paths to Nashville stardom: a strike of dumb lightning luck or years spent parceling your best songs to the stars from the shadows. Kentucky singer-guitarist Chris Stapleton chose the latter, pitching Billboard Hot 100 hits to the likes of Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker, Luke Bryan, and more while toiling away in bands of his own on the side. His debut solo album Traveller, then, is the wizened, world weary product of over a decade of quiet refinement, pained and patient in its examination of the aches of loss and longing on cuts like “When the Stars Come Out” and the lonesome, regretful “Whiskey and You” but also plenty hard rocking on the title track and burner anthem “Might As Well Get Stoned.” Stapleton drinks hard, smokes hard, and cries hard, and he’s got a voice that could wring tears from a stone. If by some miracle of science you make it to the anguished wail of grief-wracked closer “Sometimes I Cry” without losing it, see a doctor and a priest. You’re dead.
10. Miguel – Wildheart
Wildheart is the Sexiest Album of the Year. Nothing. Comes. Close. Even superimposing his raunchiest lyrics over images of Minions can’t deflate the eroticism. That’s astonishing, really, given that for the most part it’s utterly lacking in subtlety. Wildheart’s nekkid, oiled-up cover image is the perfect summation of its prevalent themes: the thrill of skin-on-skin, the way early explorations will set you vibrating on another frequency, those blush-colored clouds elevating a carnal connection (and maybe mental too) between two humans to a near-religious experience. How does he get away with it? “Coffee” opens with the line “I wish I could paint our love” before dropping a series of cringey conversation topics—street art! High fashion! Truth or dare!—that act as flirty foreplay, which in reality would have any normal human invoking the arms crossed, “Do Not Want” emoji, but damn, if Miguel doesn’t make all this sound A-OK, his overt romanticism actually appealing. It’s that Prince thing (hello “Flesh”), but it’s also the 30-year-old’s musical agility, from the block party 70s funk of “DEAL,” to the Neptunes-recalling R&B of “NWA,” to the emotions-on-the-sleeve outsider anthem “What’s Normal Anyway.” You thought 2012’s “Use Me” was upfront and exxxplicit? Set to a throbbing, hard-synced monosynth “The Valley” is essentially a sonic sext that manages some tidy references (note the Shepard Fairey nod) and encourages submission without sounding creepy. Rather, he’s playful with it—“I’ve got a rad idea to expedite the ride / Put it over / Pull ’em to the side.” Quite the feat. Confidence is a timeless, powerful aphrodisiac, but Miguel’s managed to make earnestness similarly enticing, and Wildheart is his best record to date.
—Kim Taylor Bennett
9. Misþyrming – Söngvar elds og óreiðu
Iceland is rapidly surpassing Norway and Sweden as the black metal Mecca du jour; obviously the latter two Nordic countries have the benefit of years of history on their side, but what’s happening in and outside Reyjvavik right now is injecting much-needed new life into a genre built upon death. A small, tight-knit scene centered around the Vánagandr tape label has given rise to some of black metal’s most illuminating new voices—and this year, one of their own has risen to international prominence following one hell of a debut release. Members of Naðra, Carpe Noctum, and NYIÞ convened on Misþyrming’s Söngvar elds og óreiðu to offer dense, cerebral black metal that’s born of chaos but controlled by an iron fist; atmospheric, challenging, and hypnotic, the album condenses all that was best about the genre this year into a lean, menacing 45 minutes.
It’s an intoxicating listen, one that even a casual listener would recognize as exceptional; serrated riffs roil and convulse, plaintive melodies spiral down into darkness, frontman D.G.’s atonal roar echoes throughout. Not content merely to excel within the blurred borders of black and death metal, Misþyrming also aims to shock, to unnerve—the carnivalesque fade-out on “Endalokasálmar” and pulsating ambient menace on interlude “Frostauðn” juxtaposed with the more orthodox styling of songs like “Friðþæging blýþungra hjartna” keep you guessing until the glacial elegance of closing track “Stjörnuþoka” takes hold. Released back in February by Terratur Possessions and Fallen Empire Records, it’s no wonder that the first vinyl pressing sold out immediately, or that afterwards, Misþyrming found themselves welcomed onto extreme metal’s most prestigious stages (including an upcoming artist residency at the Netherlands’s hallowed Roadburn Festival). One of the most exciting things about Misþyrming is how young they are as a band, and as artists; we have so much to look forward to from them, and given that a record as notable as Söngvar elds og óreiðu marked their debut, one can only imagine what heights they’ll reach on its successor.
8. Hop Along – Painted Shut
Well, first of all, there’s that voice, the one that nobody can stop talking about. The case for its singularity has been made and settled: Frances Quinlan sings like she’s stumbling upon fresh truths about human nature with every note, like she’s ripping revelations out from deep within some secret chamber of the soul. There are also those guitar parts, the cathartic sweeps of noise that unfold these songs from intimate portraits into world-spanning epics. And there’s the way that the two play off each other at odd angles, finding ways to disorient and delight within a scuzzy sonic realm that should be familiar enough at this point to do neither of those things.
So, yeah, on a technical level, Hop Along is doing things a little too unreal for the world of matter-of-fact realist rock, but that doesn’t fully capture what makes this record so special or why it springs so vividly to life. Quinlan’s lyrics swoop through stories that aren’t always possible to parse—why is this old man on the bridge? What are we doing in Louisiana and West Virginia?—or easy to take. But then there are details that snap into place at the moment they’re needed, too: the way the phrase “go out, don’t” becomes a kaleidoscopic reflection on self-preservation at the end of “Buddy in the Parade” or that perfect line on “Waitress” that captures sinking shame and self-hatred of being an accessory to someone else’s social interaction, “the world’s gotten so small and embarrassing.” These songs, like life, promise surprises just around the corner. Perhaps those surprises are disappointments. Perhaps they are awesome. Perhaps they are, like the guitars that close the album out, something that you wish would last a little longer. Growing older isn’t necessarily a process that provides answers; the narrative generally only gets more complicated. But if there’s hope of an untangling in this tangled up world, it probably sounds a little like Quinlan’s ragged optimism as she sings about the future with friends, where “we all will remember things the same.” Wouldn’t that be nice? Isn’t that a perfect way to say it? Of course it is. Painted Shut always finds the right, unexpected note.
7. G.L.O.S.S. – Demo
As a closeted trans teen, G.L.O.S.S. singer Sadie grew up on punk shows in Boston, a notoriously merciless scene dominated by huge dudes known for throwing hardcore’s heaviest haymakers in the pit. She’d go see bands like Bane and Reach the Sky, and she felt a connection.
“Punk was this space [where] I could wear tight clothes and nail polish,” she told Bitch Magazine. “I spent most of those years in the back of the room, but I was always listening, always feeling.” Now, she is fronting her own band, a band for the “outcasts, rejects, girls and the queers, for the downtrodden women who had shed their last tears, for the fighters, pyschos, freaks and the femmes, for all the transgender ladies in constant transition.” G.L.O.S.S. is a band for those kids in the back of the room. And it’s time to move up front.
In just five songs on their demo, G.L.O.S.S. unloads a lifetime of pent-up frustration—frustration with society’s perception of gender, frustration with being stuck between called a faggot as a man and a freak as a woman, frustration with being treated like a misfit. And, as they make abundantly clear, they are not interested in conforming to gender norms. They are, however, interested in taking femininity back, and doing so very fucking forcefully.
G.L.O.S.S. is from the future. That’s the proclamation the band kicks off this demo with, and in not even nine minutes, they channel every ounce of anguish into what might just be one of the most important punk releases of the last decade, one that lets you know exactly how the future is going to be—their way.
Not ready? Tough shit.
—Dan Ozzi and Annalise Domenighini
6. JME – Integrity>
In less than two and a half minutes, Jme makes sure you know exactly where he shops (Lush), where he eats (Nando’s), what he eats (“No meat, no cheese, no milk, no eggs”), his dental hygiene routine (“Sensodyne Classic, Listerine Citrus / Cause I don’t wanna have no fluoride), and what he cares about most: Boy Better Know and dumping on a tune. For Jme these aren’t just random pieces of information strung together in a hot 16: they matter because that is, uncompromisingly, who he is.
Living and creating under his own strict code of ethics, Jme proudly operates without the involvement of a label, management, PR, or publisher. Instead, he uses social media to connect with his audience through morally charged revelations, memes, and minute-by-minute updates of his Amazon delivery woes. Whether it’s offering to trade fans a copy of his album on vinyl in exchange for a shiny Charizard Pokemon card and performing the swap in the most convenient car park, bringing out his own line of customized swegways, or declining to flank Kanye West at this year’s BRIT Awards alongside Skepta, Novelist and the rest of UK grime because he was hungry, Jme is fully on his own thing. That’s just as true in grime as it is in life, which, once again, are one and the same if you’re Jamie Adenuga.
Integrity> operates creatively within the parameters of the genre, featuring murky production, skittering beats, and Sega Megadrive samples that feel familiar but constantly push boundaries. Tracks rarely surpass the four minute mark, and each one is a fresh blast of energy for Jme to storm over, uppercutting anyone or anything that goes against his ethos in battle-rap bars and usually landing the final blow in the form of a playground insult (“Stop chatting shit, poo poo chewer”) or the simile equivalent to the winking face emoji (“You're a useless piece of shit like when an iPhone is dead”). The production may be the backbone that draws most people in, but it’s the strange points of reference, non-sequiturs, and staccatoed delivery that elevate it from a great grime release to a definitive album.
A powerful result of all that is that Integrity> found itself sandwiched between Taylor Swift and James Bay in the midweek charts at number 12, setting a new record as the highest charting independent album in the UK. Given Skepta’s leap from heights to heights this year, Jme’s Integrity could well have gotten lost in the OVO co-signed shadow cast by his elder sibling, or seen as a precursor for the elusive Konnichiwa. Instead, Integrity is a stand alone triumph that couldn’t have come from anybody but Jme. There have been multiple UK grime success stories this year where singles and freestyles are concerned, but if we’re talking albums then Integrity> is easily the most significant headline. Serious.
5. Grimes – Art Angels
It's rare to hear Grimes discussed without some allusion to the sprawling cultural canvas she draws upon as an artist. Genghis Khan, Enya, The Mists of Avalon—all of these and more have flitted through the Grimes universe at some point in the process of assembling Art Angels. Her mood board might seem like a daunting required reading list, or it might prompt an exasperated invocation of the critic pejorative “Tumblr,” usually a jab at the way the blogging service helps present a superficial, embellished set of carefully chosen reference points.
Consider the way, though, that Tumblr works for its predominantly young, often marginalized user base: as a universe of only stuff you like and over which you have control. For someone who identifies a little differently from the kids at school or is a bit of an outcast or thinks, like Grimes, “the things they see in me I cannot see myself,” that might not always be the case in real life. Of course they're embellishing reality. Reality sucks. There are bullies and dickheads and people who want to hold you down just because of the way you look. The option to create a place into which you can escape, whether through a set of cool pictures or a game of Dungeons and Dragons or just a good book has always been vital and important.
“Visions was sci-fi,” Claire Boucher told the New Yorker earlier this year. “And this album is fantasy.” Like all great fantasy authors, one of Boucher's great gifts is her ability to create an immersive world, one in which every last squeak and click and throat-rending shriek and Chinese rap verse and pulsating synth line is carefully thought out and pieced together. Fantasy nerds want their complex systems of spell-casting and impossible-to-follow genealogies; similarly there's a self-contained magic in these oddly configured pop songs. It's there in that visceral scream Boucher lets loose on “Kill V. Maim” and in the way a valley of possibilities opens up underneath the sweeping chorus of “Flesh without Blood.” It's in the explosive search for answers in “California” and the incantatory drift of “Easily.”
Before the album's release, Boucher's insistence on doing everything down to the level of engineering her songs seemed borderline obsessive—we don't expect that of literally any musician—but in context it makes sense that she would want to total control over the realm she'd made. What you find there is up to you, whether you choose to navigate with gender identity or cultural context or art theory as your map. Boucher made it for herself, and that's perhaps her most radical assertion to her listeners, too: the idea that, for each, as Grimes excitedly sings on “Butterfly,” “you could be anything out there.” Art Angels is a testament to the idea of personal world-building, an encouragement to do the same, a battle hymn for the misfits and the outcasts. It is big tent pop music in the best way, a unifying force that wants to create room for everyone and remind us we are strong enough to be angels of our own.
4. Jamie xx – In Colour
Jamie xx got a fair bit of heat from the nerdier corners of the dance music internet, with Resident Advisor calling his “rave tributes” the equivalent of “a Hallmark greeting card blaring out tinny versions of classic rock songs.” Other dance writers followed suit.
Their main gripe is that this isn’t as gritty as the dance records it’s influenced by, but that’s because this isn’t really a dance record at all—it’s a record about dance music. It’s indebted to the history of the British underground, with clips of old rave documentaries and 5 AM Amen Breaks, but it’s not part of that lineage. Instead it’s a rich, drunk stumble through smoking areas and fire escapes, a lovingly produced, often rose-tinted tribute to the best years of your life.
Sure, a song like “Gosh” begins with appearance of a slightly giddy breakbeat track, but it’s soon engulfed by something far more celestial, a synth line that sounds like you’re coming up on a pill so fast you could be swathed by the heavens themselves. “Obvs” would sound ridiculous in a nightclub, yet you can totally imagine it’s sweetened steel pans and woozy beat playing in your own head as you lie face up in the Uber home.
Jamie himself isn't someone you can imagine giving it large in the middle of the dancefloor, and perhaps the most touching parts of the record are the ones that riff on those moments of insecurity and alienation in that environment. On “Stranger In A Room”, Jamie’s XX bandmate Oliver Sims misjudges an attempt to flirt with someone while being absolved in anonymity of a nightclub darkness “You wanna disappear in a crowd… with no word of it following.”
The defining lyric of the record, “I go to loud places, to search for someone to be quiet with” ends up being scored by an ecclesiastical Idris Muhammad sample, once again driving the idea that snogging someone on MDMA and spending eternity in the elysian fields might not be that different.
Earlier this year Jamie performed the album in its entirety at St. John’s church in Hackney—a distinctly blasphemous affair, every pew filled with 18-year-olds gurning their face off. As “Loud Places” reached its crescendo, the entire church was plunged into darkness, and the music cut out. For a second everything was black. Then the song reached it’s searing crescendo, and huge floodlights set up outside the 12-foot stained glass windows of this 18th century church beamed through. Lucid recreations of the resurrection illuminated dilated pupils and upthrusting limbs. It framed this record in the way it was meant to be heard, in heaven, in excelsis, with the dance music bloggers tiny specks below.
3. Carly Rae Jepsen – EMOTION
What a year of revelations! Carly Rae Jepsen is 30! Tom Hanks is excellent at lip-syncing! The sax is finally back baby yeah! OK so that last one is kind of a work in progress, but 2015 was the year this Canadian Idol alum confounded expectations: She throttled the “Call Me Maybe” albatross, threw it on the funeral pyre, and strutted out with EMOTION. Eventually. In pop terms, Jepsen took her sweet time—three years give or take—writing with dozens and dozens artists and producers, driven not by a desire to pen the next career defining single song, but fueled instead by creative possibilities with songwriters she admired. She was allowed to play. These many experiments and demos were then whittled down to a choice selection of songs that are both instantly catchy and actually cool. Yup, cool. Not because she’s blended veteran hit-makers—Swedes like Carl Anthony Falk and Rami (Britney, Nicki, *NSYNC) and Sia, with those relative newbies who straddle the increasingly blurred dimensions of indie and stratospheric pop (Dev Hynes, Ariel Reichstaid, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batamanji). That was a canny move for sure, but what makes Jepsen’s record cool is its total lack of pretension.
It’s a sugar rush record, heady like the first few weeks of a new crush; her hooks communicate that first touch quiver, the synapse overload followed by the sigh. She even makes whining about the opposite sex sound like a riot (“Boy Problems”). There’s a comfortable familiarity here too, a lineage traceable from Cyndi Lauper to "Borderline"-era Madonna to Robyn and Annie (“Black Heart”); Jepsen even touches up the campier end of the Kylie spectrum (“I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance”). Everything is upfront and, well, emotional, but innocently so—a conspiratorial brand of fizzy pop that sets itself apart with the absence of double entendres. In accordance with this, Jepsen as the conduit is fairly asexual. Where 95 percent of current female pop stars utilize their sexuality as an extension of their album’s marketing campaign, Carly Rae’s resolutely girl next door: your best bud who you have the best time with, who you definitely wouldn’t mind taking home to meet your mom.
Is the great surprise of this record that it’s cohesive and empirically awesome? Somewhat, but the other shock here is that EMOTION failed to vault Jepsen into the big leagues—despite the millions of YouTube views, this album did not shift enough units to trouble T-Swift’s sleep patterns. But that’s fine by us. This is Carly Rae’s breakout record—no question—but she still feels like ours.
—Kim Taylor Bennett
2. Future – DS2
A year before what will be remembered as a legendary streak of mixtapes and music, Future felt like a joke. His relationship with Ciara crumbled, and his record Honest failed to light the world on fire like he had been promised. The world of being a rapper and excessive wealth slowly became less appealing, aside from the access to a near endless supply of drugs that he only dreamed of when he was broke. But the misery didn’t end up paralyzing his career; instead it Instead of turning inward and becoming estranged from the rest of music, he kneeled at the fountain of Actavis and excess, working feverishly to put out new music at breakneck speed. It resulted in a triptych of mixtapes, and finally, in July, DS2, his highest performing full-length record and documentation of how far he drove himself.
But success isn’t a cure-all for pain, and thus DS2 serves as much as the final act of the tragedy and retribution of Future as it does as a victory lap. Where other rappers would blow an entire budget on guest features and swapping out producers left and right, Future remains the only voice on the record aside from a feature by Drake (who appears in more of a cameo role than a supporting one), and his backing band is exclusively Atlanta’s super-composers Southside, Zaytoven, and Metro Boomin’. Suffering and sheer talent work together to form DS2, weaving together brooding lyrics and unrestrained energy.
For a record with so many corners and elements ready for critical examination, it’s undoubtedly crafted with pleasure and fun, begging to be blasted from the loudest of car systems. Hyper-masculinity is used as both a shield and weapon in his mission statement and overture “I Serve The Base,” where he throws out the barb that they “tried make me a pop star and they made me a monster.” It’s only in this environment that glittering radio singles about enduring poverty like “Blow A Bag” can live and exist next to the dense, near-heavy-metal, fuck-up-the-club weight of “Groupies.” Nothing ever feels cobbled together; this is a rich canvas reliant on each track’s placement to form the whole image. In whatever enlightenment or freedom Future found in the waters of codeine and promethazine, he saw a vision of what his music’s platonic ideal should be.
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Where to begin with To Pimp a Butterfly? Musically? Lyrically? Emotionally? Trying to answer that simple question speaks to the challenge of attempting to wrap your head around this titanic force of art. Because, if we’re distilling this record down to one word, it’s just that: a force. Here’s an album that, from the start, doesn’t just ask for your attention—it demands it. To Pimp a Butterfly’s sprawling nature reaches to the core of humanity, not only challenging what our culture stands for but embraces and remembers, for better or worse, what’s gotten us to this point. “You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture,” he spits on “The Blacker the Berry.” “You’re fuckin’ evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.” Kendrick Lamar isn’t content with easy moral platitudes and feel-good answers: He will make you stare our fucked-up society in the face. He will challenge you to be as fearless as he is.
Most of the conversation surrounding To Pimp a Butterfly is one that’s exploring Kendrick’s writing chops and dense narrative world, that’s asking what a politically charged black record like this means in a year in which the United States has struggled to come to terms with, even with protest after protest, the very simple idea that black lives matter. But there’s also something more immediate and equally radical in this album, which is that it is musically stunning. In its palette of jazz and funk and hip-hop history is not just an entire tradition of stuff that sounds “cool” but one of liberation and empowerment, of asserting the primacy of a resolutely black narrative. The power of the funk that will be within you does not by any means dismiss those questions—they are what create the record’s energy—but rather reinforces them.
What's more is that Kendrick should be credited with pushing his music in a direction that isn’t trying to line up with the trends of 2015. “Alright” became a club banger on top of a political chant. “u” is essentially a poem in sonic form. “The Blacker the Berry” sounds like that scene in The Matrix: Reloaded when two semis crash into each other. “King Kunta” will make your uncle dance. “i” will have you singing down the block with your neighbors. Everything about the listening experience—the sound, the lyrics, the message—feels so goddamn freeing. The album provides us with so much to dissect, so much to comprehend, and so much to grow with. The reason Kendrick is sitting on the throne of our year-end list is because To Pimp a Butterfly is the record of a generation—something so courageous and thoughtful and progressive and explosive that we’ll never see anything like it again.
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