2015 was arguably the best year in music of the 2010’s so far. We got major releases from some of the young decade’s architects, like The Weeknd, Drake, Death Grips, Tyler, the Creator, Oneohtrix Point Never, and a certain Compton native. (We also missed some expected releases, looking at you Frank Ocean.) It was a year of rap beefs, surprising jazz epics, indie breakouts, long awaited follow ups, and conceptual rap albums. Hip-Hop continued to be the most fruitful genre and forge ahead and break serious musical ground, which has pretty much been the trend since 2010. Overall, 2015 was just a stupid good year for music. No matter where I looked, I was finding tons of worthwhile releases coming from many different styles. So it goes without saying that there were plenty of very strong albums that just didn’t make the 25 album cut. Here are a few that deserve a shoutout anyway:
• Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment- “Surf”
• Drake- “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late”
• Future- “DS2”
• Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth- “Epicenter”
• Nicole Dollanganger- “Natural Born Losers”
• BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah- “Sour Soul”
• Billy Woods- “Today, I Wrote Nothing”
I actually usually have a pretty strong stance against honorable mentions, but 2015 was simply so goddamn good that I had to include some. But let’s cut the shit and get down to the heavy hitters. The 25 best. (In my humble opinion.)
#25. Sun Kil Moon- “Universal Themes”
Arriving just a year after the exceptional “Benji,” Mark Kozelek, a.k.a. Sun Kil Moon, released this follow up. While it retains that previous record’s very personal, rambling story-telling lyricism, musically it’s a lot harsher and more obtuse. It’s definitely much less a “cry-in-your-pillow-and-await-your-parents’-inevitable-demise” album, and instead is a lot uglier and more visceral. A very, very engrossing album.
Key Track: “The Possum”
#24. Death Cab for Cutie- “Kintsugi”
Another really personal album, but this one is a lot more “cry-in-your-pillow” orientated. Many criticized this album as bland and boring, and while on first few listens I agreed, this album really grows on you and stays with you. Its wistful, weathered, and downtrodden nature is really captivating and emotionally devastating at times, especially given the context. (Frontman Ben Gibbard and his wife, Zooey Deschanel, got divorced, which led to this album.) Maybe not the most exciting listen of 2015, but definitely one of the more profound.
Key Track: “Hold No Guns”
#23. Carly Rae Jepsen- “E•MO•TION“
Catchy, well-written, memorable, fun, and expertly produced pop music. What’s not to love? Track for track for track, despite a couple of weaker cuts in the back half of the album, “E•MO•TION” displays all of those characteristics in spades, and in turn, produces one of 2015’s most addictive listens.
Key Track: “Boy Problems”
#22. The Weeknd- “Beauty Behind the Madness”
Here, The Weeknd makes the full transition into a full-fledged, hyper-mainstream pop star, and while he now lacks the danger and mystique that made his older work some of the best of the past 15 years, this album is still really damn good. It’s a little clean-cut, but so many of these tracks are certified bangers. One of the most inescapable albums of 2015, but rarely do we get lucky and not want to escape it.
Key Track: “The Hills”
#21. Lupe Fiasco- “Tetsuo & Youth”
An ultimately flawed, but endearingly ultra-ambitious album from Lupe, which is exactly what he needed after the rocky last two albums. Production wise, this thing is a bit uneven, but on the page and on the mic, Lupe is astounding. The opening track, “Mural,” arguably the song of the decade if you ask me, is eight minutes of mind-boggling, but poetically excellent and abstract raps. And after that, Lupe doesn’t let up, spitting out musings on ghetto culture, the prison system, religion, childhood, motherhood, relationships, and much more. A dense, endlessly interesting, and occasionally brilliant hip-hop album to be remembered, and built upon, for ages.
Key Track: “Mural”
#20. Tyler, the Creator- “CHERRY BOMB”
Maybe the most polarizing album released by a major artist this year. Aggressively lo-fi and muddy in places while jazzy, heavenly and smooth in others, “CHERRY BOMB” finds Tyler playing with most of his influences, like Roy Ayers, Pharrell, Kanye West, and Clipse, and even features many of those on the album. One minute Tyler is singing (or trying to sing), and then he’s rapping, and then he’s screaming, and then he’s playing guitar, and while for many people this resulted in an incomprehensible mess, for me, “CHERRY BOMB” was a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable listen.
Key Track: “OKAGA, CA”
#19. Oneohtrix Point Never- “Garden of Delete”
To continue his run of brilliance over the last six years, Daniel Lopatin comes through here with possibly his best record yet under the Oneohtrix Point Never name. Like previous releases, this thing is a wild, unpredictable, and jerky ride through sample based electronic music. Textured sounds and some sampled vocals make way for some actual catchy and melodic songs despite the song structures being so strange, and while a lot of this record is kind of obtuse and hard to make heads or tails of (like the eight minute “Mutant Standard”), a lot of it is beautiful in its own little way. An endlessly intriguing release.
Key Track: “No Good”
#18. Travi$ Scott- “Rodeo”
If you’ve been following this site for a while, you might remember that I borderline hated this thing. Listen after listen and “Rodeo” just didn’t do it for me, despite me wanting it to so badly. However, a last minute, one last shot listen clicked with me hard. Many of my opinions still stand: “Piss On Your Grave” is still the best song, and Travis still ain’t shit as a rapper or lyricist. But the producers that he works with here, like Mike Dean, Metro Boomin, Kanye West, Frank Dukes, Allen Ritter, Illangelo, Pharrell, and WondaGurl make this one of the most sonically engrossing and atmospheric hip-hop albums of the year. Throughout, it’s just so oppressively nocturnal and drugged out, but the beats still bang and are still memorable despite being so dark. And Travis can work the AutoTune well, and the features he brings on kill it. (Kanye, The Weeknd, Young Thug, Justin Bieber, Juicy J, Chief Keef, Future, 2 Chainz, and many others.) It took a while, but “Rodeo” is indeed a great album.
Key Track: “Piss On Your Grave” (featuring Kanye West)
#17. Courtney Barnett- “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit”
Simple, stripped down rock instrumentation, and some witty and observational lyrics from Courtney Barnett. It’s not the most original thing to come out this year, but it’s one of the most quirky and fun. Interesting lyrically, and catchy and immediate melodically.
Key Track: “Depreston”
#16. Father John Misty- “I Love You, Honeybear”
Elegant, grand, and spacious production full of gorgeous strings, acoustic guitars, and pianos, topped with some of the most cynical and witty lyrics of the year. Most of the album is about love, hence the title and unapologetically schmaltzy title track, but really it’s about J. Tillman (Misty), finding someone who loves him despite how much of an asshole he is, and he puts that on full display here. It’s really entertaining and at times hilarious to hear, and it results in one of the most engrossing albums of the year because it is full of so much personality. Also, the songs themselves are just really freaking good.
Key Track: “Bored in the USA”
#15. Meek Mill- “Dreams Worth More than Money”
A big budget, expensive, and trapified pop rap album. The features list tells you all you need to know really, as most of the people you’d expect on an album like this make their appearances: Future, Nicki Minaj, The Weeknd, Drake, Swizz Beatz, and Rick Ross. The whole gang’s here, and the result is an ultra fun hip-hop album featuring Meek’s shouted delivery (that is super intense on “Lord Knows”), and beats that bump the whip off the road, to quote a RapGenius comment. Meek’s been the punchline of a lot of jokes this year, but this album proves why he is a very worthwhile rapper.
Key Track: “Lord Knows”
#14. Beach House- “Depression Cherry”
This album resulted in my worst review to date because it was impossible to describe why I loved it so much, and I’m still at a loss for words. Just know this: it’s strangely nostalgic, which is a common trait in Beach House albums, and it’s dreamy and atmospheric, which is another trait in Beach House albums. It’s also extremely melodic, beautiful, and memorable, and makes for the best album in Beach House’s discography.
Key Track: “Days of Candy”
#13. Hop Along- “Painted Shut”
Frances Quinlan’s raspy, captivating vocals carry this little indie rock gem to the height of Best Rock Album of 2015 by taking her strange voice, and bending it to form some of the catchiest rock songs of recent years. The rest of the band, tight and well-produced, go along for the ride. From the minute I heard “8:45 A.M…” on the opening track, I knew this was a special album.
Key Track: “The Knock”
#12. Joanna Newsom- “Divers”
A beautiful, rich, and rewarding album with gorgeous and melodic arrangements and typically great lyricism from Joanna. A variety of sounds are presented here, from grand pop music, piano led ballads, traditional folk music like melodies, country, the blues, and of course, Joann’s signature harp-led lyrical journeys. It all blends to form one of 2015’s prettiest and most emotional albums.
Key Track: “Goose Eggs”
#11. Dr. Dre- “Compton”
To quote George Lucas, I may have gone too far in a few places in my review. I no longer think this is a five star album and that it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, but “Compton” is still an incredible album. Colorful, creative, fun as hell, and filled to the brim with moments to remember, “Compton” is the comeback from Dre that we needed. I couldn’t have asked for a better swan song from one of hip-hop most legendary figures.
Key Track: “Just Another Day” (feat. The Game)
#10. Sufjan Stevens- “Carrie and Lowell”
Some albums are very dependent on knowing the story behind the album. This is apparent in breakup albums like “Blood on the Tracks” or this year’s “Kintsugi.” “Carrie and Lowell” is one of those albums. Most of the album focuses on the death of Sufjan’s mother, and he dives head first into the problems they had when she was living, the grieving process, and even the happy memories. He talks with her ghost, and finds beauty in religion and nature to cope with his loss, and he does all of this over really quiet, whispery folk music. Just him and a guitar, or occasionally a piano, for this whole album. “Carrie and Lowell” is filled with so much honest emotion, and some of the most beautiful melodies you’ll hear anywhere, that it becomes easily one of the most heart-wrenching albums I’ve maybe ever heard. A lot of albums are deemed as “heart-breaking,” but when I put on the opening track, “Death With Dignity,” my heart actually begins to hurt. Not an album that I’m going to put on a lot because it’s just too heavy for most occasions, but that makes it no less wonderful.
Key Track: “Death With Dignity”
#9. Kamasi Washington- “The Epic”
Everybody gets caught up in the three disc, three hour length that they forget to talk about the real draw here: the music. Kamasi and his band perform some jaw-dropping and often times intense jazz music here, with great theme melodies, endlessly impressive soloing, and obviously really tight playing. Kamasi’s solos are awe-inspiring, as is Miles Mosley’s mind-blowing, next level bass playing and Cameron Graves’s piano playing. “The Epic” is a treasure trove of fantastic jazz music that reached the masses, partially because of its ambition and Kamasi’s involvement with a certain fella from Compton, but mainly because these guys are just that good.
Key Track: “Leroy and Lanisha”
#8. Vince Staples- “Summertime ’06”
This album’s two discs are overflowing with dark, eerie bangers, endlessly quotable raps from Vince, and overall, songs that stick with you. On the mic, Vince is fantastic, as he’s always been on previous features and projects, with his high-pitched, if-Snoop-Dogg-was-a-murderer delivery, and lyrically, Vince paints a desolate and cold blooded picture of Long Beach, California, where “the skinny carry strong heat.” Production wise, No I.D. and Clams Casino come through with beats that perfectly mirror that. A dark album, but an addictive and strangely fun one too. One of the best debut hip-hop albums of this generation.
Key Track: “Norf Norf”
#7. Lil Ugly Mane- “Third Side of Tape”
A two hour behemoth spanning all of Ugly’s musical endeavors: hip-hop, black metal, ambient, drone, noise, rock, electronic music, etc. Made out of miscellaneous parts essentially, “Third Side of Tape” is all of these disparate genres thrown together, which sounds like it would be a mess, but somehow, due to Ugly’s amazing production skills, it all flows perfectly. A jaw-dropping album.
#6. Earl Sweatshirt- “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside”
“I Don’t Like Shit…” is one of those albums that sounds like its cover and title. The stark black of the artwork reflects the album’s mood: dark, and the title reflects a lot of the things Earl is talking about on this record: like how he doesn’t go outside and doesn’t really like a lot of things. A short, 30 minute journey down a few chambers featuring dark, claustrophobic, and eerie production, and typically brilliant rapping and lyricism from Earl, that re-affirms why this man is one of my favorite hip-hop artists today.
#5. Injury Reserve- “Live From The Dentist Office”
This mixtape is a gem to end all gems. Colorful and creative production compliments these two extremely enthusiastic MC’s. One of the things I love about this tape is that it sounds like these guys just loved making it, as throughout most of it you can hear them smiling ear to ear as they rap. It definitely brought me plenty of smiles. A must listen.
P.S. “ttktv” is the chill out song of 2015.
Key Track: Between “Yo” and “ttktv”
#4. Nickelus F & Shawn Kemp- “Trick Dice”
Criminally slept on Virginia rapper Nickelus F and Shawn Kemp (better known as Lil Ugly Mane) team up here for this grimy, dirty, dusty hip-hop tape. Kemp’s production is dreamy and soaked in echo, like most of his work, and it results in some of the best beats I’ve heard this year, and Nickelus, or Petey Petey as he fancies himself these days, does what he does best, which is spit straight fire. His lyricism isn’t complicated or showy at all, but as Ugly acknowledges in the notes to the album, there is a genius to the way F raps. It’s hard to explain, but he is honestly one of my favorite rappers, and by teaming up with one of my favorite producers, they’ve crafted an absolutely incredible tape. This thing is like breaking up dirty, smelly weed on your friend’s backpack in the middle of the woods, and I can imagine if I held a physical copy of this thing, it would smell like that too. That’s a good thing.
Key Track: “Paragraph Of My Life”
#3. Death Grips- “The Powers That B”
Remember when Death Grips went electric? Wait, scratch that, they’ve always been electric. But remember when Death Grips decided to make the loudest, most in your face rock album that made every other band masquerading as rock look like a bunch of pussies? I do, and it was glorious. In March, the long-awaited “Jenny Death” arrived to join the very good “niggas on the moon” and complete “The Powers That B” double album, and the result was a no-holds-barred, energetic, and loud as fuck album of mostly rock, sometimes electronic instrumentation, and MC Ride’s famous shouted raps. This thing must be played as loud as possible to get the full effect, as head-banging to the title track’s crushing chorus on full blast is just golden. The definitive lose your shit album of 2015.
Key Track: “On GP”
#2. Lil Ugly Mane- “Oblivion Access”
An absolute masterpiece of dark, grimy, dusty, and abstract hip-hop. Everything I really said about it can be found in my review, but just know that this an intense emotional and mental experience, and a jaw-dropping musical one as well. The Lil Ugly Mane project goes out with one of the greatest albums of the past 15 years.
Key Track: “Leonard’s Lake”
#1. Kendrick Lamar- “To Pimp a Butterfly”
“Highway 61 Revisited.” “A Love Supreme.” “Illmatic.” “OK Computer.” “What’s Going On.” “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” “Kind of Blue.” “Pet Sounds.” “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
2015 was a great year for music, like I said in my intro to the list. I heard numerous albums that I’ll be listening to a lot in the future. But it’s still “To Pimp a Butterfly” and then everything else. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve either heard this album, or even if you haven’t (fix that right now), you’ve read and heard about this album’s acclaim everywhere. So surely I don’t need to go into the album’s seamless blend of hip-hop and jazz. Surely I don’t need to go into the album’s brilliant concept and cohesiveness, or its message of black power and self love. Plus, I went into all of that, and more, in my review. I’ll say this though: “To Pimp a Butterfly” is everything it’s cracked up to be and more. It’s not a great album. It’s one of the great albums.
Key Track: “The Blacker the Berry”