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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
26

Future, ‘DS2’

No one better articulated the narcotized politics of personal pleasure this year than Future, whose Number One  album was led by two singles about his endless cash supply ("Fuck Up Some Commas" and "Blow a Bag") and then opened with a track in which he brags about being so high he pisses codeine. How much sex is Future having? He devotes an entire song, "Rich $ex," to doing it with his gold chains on. DS2 — a sequel to his 2011 mixtape Dirty Sprite — is the first major-label album where Future gets to be Future. No attempts at radio-friendly unit shifters, just the dope sound of Atlanta: oceans of bass, trap drums, eerie keyboards and hallucinatory backing vocal effects popping out of the mix. "Tried to make me a pop star and they made a monster," he explains on "I Serve the Base" — the title of which punningly pledges allegiance to the sound of his music, his core audience and cocaine. But not total allegiance: pot, molly, Percocet and Xanax are in the mix as well, and paranoia and hell are frequently mentioned. The politics of personal pleasure do not, it turns out, bring complete freedom, at least not from worry or the need for more dirty Sprite.

50 Best Albums of 2015
25

Darlene Love, ‘Introducing Darlene Love’

In 1962, her towering vocals were the heart of the Phil Spector-produced "He's a Rebel" and "He's Sure the Boy I Loved," with her expression of female desire answered by her own strength. But through a career that's included time on Broadway, stints as a duet partner for Bruce Springsteen and Bette Midler, and a scene-stealing moment at the 2014 Oscars when 20 Feet From Stardom won for best documentary, it's taken Darlene Love six decades to reintroduce herself in proper style on this LP. Lovingly produced by Steve Van Zandt and featuring new songs from Springsteen and Elvis Costello, the album runs from super-charged bar-band soul to the string-fueled Jimmy Webb epic "Who Under Heaven." At 74, Love's voice has deepened a bit but lost none of its power – if anything, it's shifted from a marvel of indomitability to a miracle of agelessness. Highlights include the bluesy and horn-charged "Painkiller," a cover of "River Deep Mountain High" scored for strings and power chords, and the Springsteen-penned "Night Closing In," which gets the Wall of Sound treatment and suggests a girl-group makeover of Born to Run. After a set of songs about trials and tribulations, the album closer — "Jesus is the Rock that Keeps Me Rolling," written by Van Zandt — finds Love getting happy in the name of the lord. It's a burst of pure joy from a singer whose art and example have never let up.

50 Best Albums of 2015
24

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, ‘Surf’

Two years ago, Chance the Rapper became one of hip-hop's hottest talents with his self-released mixtape Acid Rap. His follow-up isn't credited to his own name, and in a sense it's no follow-up at all: It's a sublime hip-hop/jazz fusion project led by Chance's pal Donnie Trumpet (a.k.a. Nico Segal), with extensive vocal and arrangement contributions by the unbilled star himself. Together, the Social Experiment gathered burgeoning newcomers (D.R.A.M., B.J. the Chicago Kid, Jamila Woods) and serious vets (Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes) on their way to creating one of the year's warmest LPs. From top to bottom, Surf charms with its freedom, youth and whimsical spirit. As easily as it can evoke pure heart – see "Sunday Candy," "Caretaker" and "Warm Enough" – this album also has a joyful sense of humor, heard on the irrepressible "Wanna Be Cool." For fans who dared to connect with Surf, it stood as the soul and conscience of music in 2015.

50 Best Albums of 2015
23

Mark Knopfler, ‘Tracker’

With Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler fronted one of the biggest bands of the Eighties – but reliving those old glories, let alone staging a big reunion tour, is the furthest thing from his mind. Instead, at 66, he's interested in working out his own stately version of rock & roll with subtlety and detailed interplay on songs that look back to bygone times with wistful dignity. Tracker opens with "Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes," a song that evokes Dave Brubeck's jazz standard "Take Five," before turning into a Celtic folk-influenced reflection on happy youthful poverty. Elsewhere, Dylan and the Grateful Dead pop up as touchstones. Knopfler reflects on past loves ("Long Cool Girl"), bad jobs ("Basil") and lost fistfights ("Broken Bones"), shading each reminiscence with understated guitar work that fits the  album's balance of resignation and contentment. Another pleasure: witnessing the simple joy Knopfler gets from practicing his craft on his terms at his own pace:  "I do what I want/And I don't give a damn about a thing," he sings on the lovely, Jerry Garcia-flavored country number "Skydiver." This is an album to live with, and a satisfaction to envy.