What's Good's 10 Best Albums of 2015

2015 has been nothing but a treat for music fans, and with no shortage of amazing content, the year can arguably go down as the most quality annum since 2010. While we'll close out with  silence on the Frank Ocean front, and a lack of a new Yeezy record, we can still rest easy knowing that LCD Soundsystem is still out there somewhere in the world making music. So, to ring in the new year, music writers Ryan Lindborg and Soumya Subba look back at what made 2015 so special. Here's to hoping that the new year is a grand one, and that we get new Radiohead.

Ryan Lindborg

10. Drake - If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late

2015 has, hands down, been the biggest year of Drake’s career to date. From dismantling Meek Mill’s career in what was arguably the widest publicized rap beef since Ether, to becoming the savviest marketer in the music industry; Drake knows that he’s the most relevant meme of the moment. If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late is Aubrey’s piledriver to all his doubters. The record is nothing but pure, pent up, unrestrained energy. It’s a barrage of bar after bar of braggadocio, the only difference is, this time, Drake knows he’s at the top. It’s not so much a victory lap, but a necessary deterrent to anyone coming at the throne. Drake may not be the underdog anymore, but If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late will keep you rooting for him all the same.

9. Archy Marshall - A New Place 2 Drown

This album has barely been out for five minutes, but it manages to leave a very strong first impression. Archy Marshall, better known to most as King Krule, is back with a follow up to 2013’s 6 Feet Beneath the Moon. It’s the logical culmination of everything Archy has been building towards: a solemn, all consuming, deeply personal record. It’s haunting and elusive, angry but reasoned, a head trip to listen to and pick apart. Archy’s freewheeling streams of consciousness are backdropped by his own gorgeous soundscapes. The jazz-rock fusion of his previous record is replaced with sludgy downtempo hiphop. Crafted masterfully, any of these tracks could hold their own and go above and beyond any contemporary beat maker. His songwriting, coupled with the unmistakable sonics, make for an unforgettable record that is wholly the art of Archy Marshall.

8. Bjork - Vulnicura

Bjork’s Vulnicura is essentially a breakup in a nutshell. A powerfully cathartic release, this is Bjork bearing her all. It’s draining, but towards the end of the record becomes an exercise in release and rebirth. Produced by the seminal Arca and The Haxan Cloak, she’s able to expand on the ambience she’s developed so thoroughly throughout her career. Vulnicura contains some of the more ambitious and exciting pop compositions of 2015, giving any other contemporary avant-garde singer songwriter a run for their money. Vulnicura is not to be taken lightly, don’t expect to leave unscathed, but expect to come out with a deeper understanding of the universality of love.

7. Jamie XX - In Colour 

In Colour is possibly the most affecting album of the year on first listen. It doesn’t take much to comprehend the sheer force of what Jamie’s created: an undeniably energetic, catchy, but understated collection of what may be some of the best electronic dance music ever created. Seemingly combining every element of what comprises UK club culture and refining it into something totally accessible, In Colour, much like its cover art, is a broad musical palette. The last 15 minutes of this record, the run between Loud Places and the closer Girl, is something to be cherished.

6. Father John Misty - I Love You Honeybear

If there was any reason to be cynical about life, 2015 was the perfect excuse to cop a shitty attitude. Josh Tillman’s wry songwriting muses on everything from existential dread to the value of monogamy. Backdropped by beautifully lush instrumentation, Tillman manages to skirt the line between being self defeating and somewhat optimistic. It’s refreshing and brutally honest, laying out not just his marriage, but what’s wrong with supposedly the entire universe. There isn’t a single weak cut on this record, each song building towards the downplayed finisher of I Went To The Store One Day. If anything, Tillman manages to reassure you that life, despite its imperfections, is a ride worth taking.

5. Everything Everything - Get to Heaven

Get to Heaven goes down in my book as the most underrated album of the year, a perfect pop-rock record from start to finish that seemingly flew under a lot of radars. Clocking in at a mere 40 minutes, Everything Everything’s approach to addressing modern day catastrophe is to keep it as short, sweet, and to the point as possible. The breeziness of the music makes for an interesting counterpoint to the songwriting, playing up a contrast that’s not easy to pull off. For a lighthearted jaunt into the depravity of the modern condition, there’s no better tour guide than Everything Everything.

4. D’Angelo and The Vanguard - Black Messiah

This technically came out at the very tail end of 2014, but D’Angelo’s Black Messiah is a testament to the staying power of just how forceful his message is. Beautifully composed, the record is a testament to D’Angelo’s ear for arrangement and his natural talent as a multi-instrumentalist. This is also probably the least coherent D’Angelo’s ever sounded on record, his lyrics slurred and mumbled into the obscurity of his forward-thinking neo soul sound. The album stands as a bold and passionate testament to his views on politics, race, love, happiness, and his own personal rise from struggle and addiction. It’s poignant and heartfelt, soundtracked gorgeously by his backing band The Vanguard. As sporadic as D’Angelo can be, Black Messiah was a worthy answer fourteen years in the making.

3. Julia Holter - Have You In My Wilderness

Julia Holter’s fourth record is about as bright, lively, and accessible as experimental pop can get. Julia’s best work to date, the album bounces between being unapologetically whimsical and all at once mystifying. Wilderness is an apt piece of the title, it’s confounding being lost in Julia’s arrangements and the melancholy of her voice. It’s an incredibly consuming experience, but it ultimately rewards the listener by enveloping you entirely in a world that is Julia’s own. A deeply satisfying listen from start to finish, Have You In My Wilderness stands as what might be the most delicate and heartfelt record of 2015.

2.  Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly 

To Pimp a Butterfly has had its due, it’s been lauded to the moon and back. People were calling this album of the year as early as its March release date. Fans and critics alike heralded King Kendrick as the voice of a generation. Now, almost nine months later, those praises still hold as much weight as they did back then. To Pimp a Butterfly is a phenomenal record. Good Kid M.A.A.D. City easily holds weight as one of the best hip-hop releases of the decade. To Pimp a Butterfly could have been obscured by the fluidity and effortless storytelling of its predecessor; instead, it eclipses it. To Pimp a Butterfly is current and unapologetic, a true testament to the power of music to both reflect and effect social change. It’s Kendrick’s victory lap, albeit a deeply personal one, he knows the extent of his vision and just how good he is at execution. If you want a record that encompassed what 2015 meant on a human level, To Pimp a Butterfly is a very fitting account.

1. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie and Lowell 

Carrie and Lowell is Sufjan’s most deeply personal and heartfelt record in his almost 17 year long career. That’s no easy feat, considering his catalogue contains some of the most beautifully written melancholic songs of this century. But Carrie and Lowell is a different kind of sadness, this is Sufjan staring into the abyss of death, and asking the listener to confront the finality of life. He does this through the narratives of his birth mother Carrie, and his loving stepfather Lowell. His troubled relationship with his mother during her existence and after her death is a confounding variable that Sufjan explores with no shortage of intimacy. Underwritten by the fact that Lowell, of no blood relation, cares deeply and profoundly for him, makes the tale all the more tragic.

It’s not an easy listen, but it is pleasant and sweet to the ears. Sufjan harkens back to his proclivity for lo-fi folk, employing less sounds and grandeur than 2010’s Age of Adz. However, in this case, less is more, with Carrie and Lowell featuring some of the most elegant music of 2015. All in all, it’s a brutally intimate affair that will ultimately leave you finding a little bit of yourself in Sufjan.

Soumya Subba

10. Miguel - Wildheart

With Frank Ocean reportedly leaning towards hip hop in his highly anticipated upcoming album, and the generally disappointing Beauty Behind the Madness, Miguel may have just adopted the position of R&B’s leading man – something he’s wholly deserving of. His overt sexuality is always going to be present in his music, but he’s finding more and more ways of making it palatable for the general public. Case in point, “waves”; the most anthemic song he’s ever made.

9. Joanna Newsom – Divers

It’s hard to describe the music of Joanna Newsom; it’s idiosyncratic, ethereal, and timeless, even. Her love of language, and expert musicianship, help to create some of the prettiest music of 2015. But she’s versatile - she even recently admitted she’d love to collaborate with Kendrick Lamar; imagine that, two artists with a love for storytelling, and broadening their listener’s horizons. “The Things I Say” is an eloquent little tune, and “Sapokanikan” is just phenomenal.

8. Kamasi Washington – The Epic     

Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Kamasi Washington could be the leading figureheads for a resurgence in jazz music. A member of the crew that imparted the jazz/funk influence within To Pimp a Butterfly, Kamasi Washington’s 180-minute long epic, Epic, is an exceptional foray into the wonders of modern jazz. It’s a luxurious sound, maybe best typified by the dazzling “Cherokee”.

7. Deafheaven – New Bermuda 

Sunbather was an album of immense beauty, a black metal album with strong ties to both shoegaze and post-rock, and most importantly, an album that even metal-naysayers could enjoy. The metal half of ‘blackgaze’ was toned down, seamlessly integrated with long stretches of stunning interludes. The much anticipated follow-up, New Bermuda,offers much of the same; it’s still filled with beauty, but there’s a noticeable change in environment – it’s harsher, more reliant on ‘black’ than it is to ‘gaze’. For example, the relentless “Brought to the Water”, or the terrific closer, “Gifts for the Earth”. 

6. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

For all its wry and witty lyricism, I Love You, Honeybear is the year’s most poignant love letter. “I haven’t hated all the same things as somebody else / since I remember”, he sings on the delightful “Chateau Lobby #4”. He’s more expansive than just a plain singer-songwriter, though, the Age of Adz-esque “True Affection”, and Arcade Fire tinged “The Ideal Husband” are notable exceptions.

“Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity / What I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me, is his final note on the penultimate track, “Holy Shit”. Despite a façade of humour and irony, Honeybear breaks down to just one thing; love.

 5. Jamie xx – In Colour

 

A member of indie favourites The xx, Jamie xx’s debut album is the most aesthetically pleasing record of the year. An elegant album, back-to-front, In Colour is the rare headphone album that’s just as evident when played over loudspeakers; that’s just as impressive if you break down every little detail, as it is when you take it at face value. There are massive tracks here, namely the opener, “Gosh”; but there are also some glorious moments, like the sonic delight that is “Sleep Sound”.

And then there’s “Loud Places”, a devastating, and relatable, song that’s better than anything The xx have ever created. “You go to loud places to find someone who will take you higher than I took you, xx bandmate Romy Madley Croft croons. Succeeding that bittersweet tune is the Young Thug and Popcaan featuring “Good Times”, the most joyous song of the year.

4. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

For an artist constantly seeking to create expansive, maximal music, Carrie & Lowell is a starkly minimal record; occupied with only Stevens’ hushed vocal, an acoustic guitar, and a piano. Written in the aftermath of his mother’s passing, there are ever-present themes of longing, regret, religion, and death. Death, and the inevitable nature of death, being the focal message. “Every road leads to an end”, he sings on gorgeous opener, “Death with Dignity”.

For a record so obsessed with darkness, there is one particular track that stands out. “Should Have Known Better”, and its life-affirming outro, serve as the album’s solitary moment of optimism. It still baffles me as to why he chose to place the track second in the tracklist, rather than last. But then again, Carrie & Lowell wasn’t made for me – as Stevens said; “This is not my art project; this is my life.”

3. Tame Impala - Currents

The process of personal transformation; the act of change, of progression - as much for the man, as it is for the music. With only two albums, Kevin Parker had firmly proved himself to be the modern voice of psychedelic music. With a devoted fanbase that would gladly champion either of his two records as the best of the decade, it came as a startling surprise to many when he released the disco-influenced Currents opener, “Let It Happen”.

This was followed by an album that largely followed that trend, something I – as well as many others – were thrilled to see; an established musician making such a drastic, musical shift. It’s a meticulously produced album, filled with minute details and musical flourishes, from a man who’s clearly yet to reach his potential. With Currents, he likely lost a number of Innerspeaker fans; but, in my opinion, he’s just cemented his place as one of this decade’s leading musical figures.

2. Grimes – Art Angels

“It’s the first time I’ve had the world at my fingertips”, Claire Boucher on the creation of the LP. Like Currents, Art Angels represents progression, the result of an artist who’s edging closer to the music she’s always wanted to make – this isn’t Grimes ‘going pop’. In saying that though, it is very much a pop album; unfiltered, maximalist, blissful pop. It’s the most infectious album of the year, with a diversity that lends itself well to any listener.

For every understated “Belly of the Beat”, there’s a “Venus Fly” dancefloor banger, and then there’s the extraordinary “Kill V. Maim”; the most complete representation of Boucher, both vocally and with regards to her music. Art Angels is the most forward thinking album of the year, from one of modern music’s most unique voices.

1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

Let’s get one thing straight, you don’t have to pretend to enjoy Kendrick Lamar’s third album, To Pimp a Butterfly. To even quote Lamar himself, “you ain’t gotta lie to kick it, my nigga.” TPAB is a complicated record, it’s exhausting, chaotic – even frustrating. It was labelled by critics as an ‘instant classic’, an album whose influence would still be felt 50 years down the line. In fact, it’s (arguably) the most universally acclaimed album of the century - an album with just two songs that could be deemed as accessible. So, it begs the question; why?

Why? Because it’s the most important album of the year. It may be a flawed album, with a few tracks painfully coming across as filler amidst a tracklist of heavyweights. But this doesn’t take away from the statement; from the pure artistic achievement; from the uncompromised, undeniable work; that is To Pimp a Butterfly. This wasn’t a work made to ship records, or to break records, but it did so anyway.

There’s a reason why 2015 was void of major releases from both Kanye and Drake, and to a lesser extent, Frank Ocean – in the decades’ most carefully realized album yet, Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy may finally have found its match.

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