Home Music Music Lists

50 Best Albums of 2015

Kendrick fought the power, Adele soared higher, D’Angelo shocked the world and more

2015

Illustration by Ryan Casey

As the curtain falls on 2015, it might be hard to remember any albums released this year besides Adele's record-breaking, generation-uniting, triple-platinum-and-counting 25. But there was so much more to hear. Kendrick Lamar's Molotov-cocktail-tossing hip-hop, D'Angelo’s razor-sharp R&B and Kamasi Washington's restorative jazz all made major statements, feeling like three crucial dispatches from the #BlackLivesMatter protests under three black-and-white covers. Over on the pop charts, Halsey celebrated the "New Americana" (rhymes with "Biggie and Nirvana"), and some of 2015's best albums upended the old one: Upstart Chris Stapleton sang country songs like Sam Cooke, Jason Isbell made roots-rock that shouts out Sylvia Plath, and both Rhiannon Giddens and Bob Dylan took turns running the American songbook through their unique prisms. This year saw some fantastic releases from Rock & Roll Hall of Famers (Keith Richards, Don Henley, Darlene Love), along with a few strong returns from the alt-rock heroes of the Nineties (Blur, Sleater-Kinney, Wilco). R&B innovators like the Weeknd and Miguel walked a reverb-saturated lane into the future and past, while rappers like Drake, Future and Rae Sremmrurd brought cohesive, immediate statements for the Internet's insatiable now. Here are the 50 records that defined our year.

50 Best Albums of 2015
10

Blur, ‘The Magic Whip’

Blur recorded most of their first original-quartet album since 1999 in Hong Kong, and named it after a brand of Chinese firecracker – an apt allusion to the explosive jolts and emotional shrapnel embedded in the Kinks-like stroll of "Lonesome Street" and the Martian-desert glow of the closing ballad "Mirrorball." In the lost-in-orbit dream "Thought I Was a Spaceman," singer Damon Albarn sounds quietly desperate for liftoff in a gorgeous galaxy of silvery guitar and milky-reverb electronics. It's an album about urgent motion without lasting connection – "Log in your name and pray 24 hours," Albarn sings in "New World Towers" – made by a band that has rediscovered its exploratory bond and pop-song grip. Twenty years after the peak of Brit-pop, Blur are back in style, with substance.

50 Best Albums of 2015
9

The Arcs, ‘Yours, Dreamily’

Apparently Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach isn't busy enough with that band, his Nashville studio Easy Eye and production jobs for Dr. John, Lana Del Rey and Cage the Elephant, among others. His debut album with the Arcs – a loose combo of friends and associates including drummer Richard Swift of the Shins and multi-instrumentalist Leon Michels of the New York neo-soul production team Truth and Soul – is a riveting extension of the Keys' progressive-blues aesthetic. "Stay in My Corner" and "Velvet Ditch" are turbulent R&B noir, spiked with psychedelic flourishes; "Put a Flower in Your Pocket" is spectral hip-hop coated in crusty mellotron. Auerbach laces the spare, loping ballad "Chains of Love" with the vocal sensuality of the female mariachi ensemble Mariachi Flor de Toloache and drops a prairie-doo-wop hook in "Cold Companion," sounding like the Eagles had just busted through the saloon door. With the fun and promise in details like that, the Arcs could be a band with a future – if Auerbach can find the time.

50 Best Albums of 2015
8

Various Artists, ‘Hamilton: Original Broadway Soundtrack’

A nearly three-hour Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton ("the ten dollar founding father without a father") might, on paper, sound like a tough feat to pull off. Writer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also plays the lead role, made it look easy with a book of modern hip-hop and R&B songs that could've been played on the radio. Even if you didn't get to see the show, the soundtrack album still works as a fantastically fun ride of its own. It helps that the Caribbean-born orphan who became our first Treasury Secretary lived a perfect hip-hop life – hustling his way from poverty to "young, scrappy and hungry" New York success story, fighting a bitter North-South regional battle with Thomas Jefferson and finally going down at the hands of punk-ass Aaron Burr when beef turned lethal. In Hamilton, the complex policy debates of the early Republic are rendered in verses worthy of Kanye. But along with being outrageously thrilling living history, it projects brilliantly into our own election season. As Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette sing after whooping ass on the British: "Immigrants, we get the job done." Take notice, King Donald.

50 Best Albums of 2015
7

Jason Isbell, ‘Something More Than Free’

Jason Isbell chronicled hard-won sobriety and marriage on 2013's breakthrough Southeastern. Instead of remaking that album on this follow-up, the most thoughtful roots-rock singer-songwriter of his generation delivered a stunning chronicle of Southern life, full of unforgettable characters and indelible images like "Jack and Coke in your mama's car/You were reading The Bell Jar." Isbell's subjects are overworked and underprivileged – a bored police officer who kills time pulling over women, factory workers "just happy to have the work," old high school girlfriends who took the wrong turns. The best is "Speed Trap Town," a Nebraska-steeped acoustic ballad about a guy who sneaks a bottle into a high-school game and finally decides to leave town. It's hard to believe he ever really escapes.

50 Best Albums of 2015
6

Courtney Barnett, ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’

The year's best debut came from a 27-year-old Australian singer-songwriter who marries the observational wit of Jerry Seinfeld, the word-ninja flow of Bob Dylan circa '65 and the guitar poetry of Stephen Malkmus. As its title implies, these are songs wrought from a specific type of everyday quarter-life malaise – one brilliant song is about the stuff that runs through your mind when you can't fall asleep, another is about a botched meet-cute at a swimming pool. But Barnett's ability to pack her songs about nothing with vivid imagery and insight, literary detail and political insight, is astonishing.  "Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables/And I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first/A little pesticide can't hurt," she sings on the springy rocker "Dead Fox," which somehow morphs into a hilarious, catchy driving tune. Songs like "Pedestrian At Best" and "Debbie Downer" update the rich tradition of self-doubting Nineties alt-rock; other moments, like the heartbreaking "Depreston," have a wisdom – about aging, class anxiety, economics and relationships – that seems almost impossible for someone who's only beginning to find the depth of her artistic gifts. All signs suggest those gifts could be bottomless.

50 Best Albums of 2015
5

The Weeknd, ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’

Canada's Abel Tesfaye redefined what it means to be an R&B auteur with his breakthrough second LP. After a series of mysterious mixtape releases built around weeded-out goth moodiness (and one half-baked major-label debut, in 2011), he went for full-on Top 40 grandeur this time, without diluting any of his eerie allure. The sumptuous Max Martin joint "Can't Feel My Face" got America dancing to a sex-as-cocaine metaphor, thanks to a joyful hook Michael Jackson could have moonwalked to; "In the Night" amped up the violent undercurrents of MJ circa Bad while still feeling like a party; and bleary ballads like "Earned It" and "The Hills" spun gossamer sensuality into unlikely hit singles. Who else but the Weeknd could make a line like "Only my mother could love me for me" work as pillow talk? It's just that kind of raw honesty that makes him such a revolutionary player.

50 Best Albums of 2015
4

D’Angelo and the Vanguard, ‘Black Messiah’

Does this guy know how to pick a moment, or what? D'Angelo dropped his first LP since 2000 in the final days of 2014, as his big statement on America in a year of deep racial turmoil. At first it might have sounded too good to be true, but after a year of listening, Black Messiah stands even taller. The songs take their time to build a plush, meditative live-band soul groove in the vein of Sly Stone, Prince or Al Green circa The Belle Album. D speaks his piece about police violence in "The Charade" ("All we wanted was a chance to talk/'Stead we only got outlined in chalk"), whistles the blues hook of "The Door" and unleashes his inner guitar hero in "1000 Deaths." The showstopper is "Another Life" – six minutes of piano, sitar and falsetto, stretching into D'Angelo's infinite future. Even if we have to wait another 15 years for the next chapter, it'll take at least that long to truly absorb Black Messiah.

50 Best Albums of 2015
3

Drake, ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’

What a time to be Drake. Toronto's finest enjoyed a hell of a year – his beef with Meek Mill turned out to be the most lopsided rap battle since LL Cool J crushed Canibus, and he dominated playlists from "Know Yourself" in the winter to "Hotline Bling" in the fall. It all started with this, his purest hip-hop move in ages, which he called a mixtape even though it sold through the roof. No pop hooks, no romance, just a tightly sequenced set of rap cuts where he plays directly to his base by venting his anger and paranoia. He disses his own record label and kvetches about groupies as only he can: "I got bitches asking me about the code for the Wi-Fi." He even complains about driving his girl to her bar exam through the snow – perhaps the most Drake-ish grouse ever. This is the darkest record he's ever made, yet it easily cleared a million copies sold in a year when virtually no one else did. Even when Aubrey Drake Graham downplays his pop side, he runs the game.

50 Best Albums of 2015
2

Adele, ’25’

The feverish four-year wait for the follow-up to Adele's triple-platinum blockbuster, 21, was unlike anything we've seen this decade – and she didn't disappoint on this thunderous triumph. 25 tells the story of a young woman making her uneasy peace with adulthood, like Carole King on Tapestry. The pop-savvy "Water Under the Bridge" and the soaring piano ballad "Remedy" take on relationship drama with realist fire, while the lighthearted "Sweetest Devotion" dances right into ecstasy. Adele and her A-list co-conspirators (Max Martin, Tobias Jesso Jr.) fly from drum-cannon Eighties balladry to classic gospel and blues to the kind of piano power surges that are her epic signature, holding it all together with the nuanced, towering vocal performances that have already made her iconic. "If you're not the one for me/Then how come I can bring you to your knees?" she sings. On 25, she does it over and over again.

50 Best Albums of 2015
1

Kendrick Lamar, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’

Musically, lyrically and emotionally, Kendrick Lamar's third album is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece – a sprawling epic that's both the year's most bumptious party music and its most gripping therapy session. A rap superstar at last, after years on the underground grind, Lamar wrestles with the depression and survivor's guilt that followed his fame and success by turning to heroes from Ralph Ellison and Richard Pryor to Smokey Robinson and Kris Kross to Nelson Mandela and Tupac. He lives large. He contains multitudes.

The pleasures and rewards of To Pimp a Butterfly aren't easy. Leading the charge to bring live instrumentation back to hip-hop, Lamar and producer Sounwave call forth a sound as ambitious, free-associative and challenging as his rhymes: sci-fi funk on "Wesley's Theory," snatches of free jazz on "For Free?," steady-rolling G-funk on "King Kunta." Over all this, Lamar – his voice raw or multitracked into its own chorus – interrogates himself and a country where everything from his ancestors to his art has always been for sale. He repeatedly returns to a moment when he found himself alone in a hotel room, distraught and screaming. "I didn't want to self-destruct," he says. "So I went running for answers." The search is never-ending.

Show Comments