2015 was an incredible year for music, full of surprises and second comings, weird new genres and unbelievable evolutions of existing sounds. Of course, every year is great for music as long as you’re open to new sounds. That’s how this whole thing works.
Every year, I enjoy writing down my favorites as I go along, adding them to a simple text file on my laptop. Sometimes I add stars to the albums when I realize I’m completely mad for them. For some albums, this means I find myself listening day after day, racking up dozens of plays. For others, this means that I’m struck so deeply on an emotional, intellectual, or even physical level that I can’t bring myself to listen again for a few days. Both experiences bring lasting rewards, especially when considered in the long view. This is why I love looking back and appreciating the permanent impact from these powerful pieces of music.
As it turned out, this year’s list included over twenty starred albums. I left a handful for my Best of 2015 Honorable Mention list, but the rest were simply indispensable. My list would not be complete without all of these albums.
So please, read on and enjoy. These are the 17 best albums of 2015.
17. Dawn Richard – Blackheart
[Our Dawn Entertainment]
This was the last album I heard before starting my list, but the fact that I missed out on listening for 11 months is pretty regretful. The music here is absolutely exploding with life, a primal scream of future pop perfection. It’s an open wound, bleeding technicolor confessionals over edge-of-tomorrow production, the kind of clarion call usually resulting in mountains of critical praise and record sales. Unfortunately, while Dawn Richard nailed the former, Blackheart has largely fallen between the cracks when it comes to popular awareness.
As a former member of Diddy-produced supergroup Danity Kane, this seems a strange position to be found in. As it stands, I discovered Richard’s album on the only other best of 2015 list I read before finalizing my own. The praise seemed literally unbelievable, so I listened to judge for myself. I was blown away by the production at first, then realized the lyrics were clearly a strong focus too. After a dozen listens, I recognized a true pop masterpiece, the kind of album to stand up with Björk’s Homogenic, or Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s a truly ambitious project that is as nuanced as it is bombastic. I’ve at least heard one of the songs on top 40 radio, so there’s hope.
As a counterpoint to its pop bonafides, I offer the contemplative center of the album, Projection.
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16. Zs – Xe
At the very end of the year, I had to revisit this one to refamiliarize myself. In January, I was blown away by this charred asteroid of a jazz album, by one of my favorite working bands today. Its skeletal take on industrial, noisy jazz was the kind of abrasive sound that I love to periodically cleanse my musical palette with. At the center lies a hard rhythmic pulse, the kind of structural anchor that makes heads nod, anchoring the abstract sculpture in place.
The title track might cover half the running time, but the second song sets the tone for the album. Corps opens with a guitar riff marrying Dick Dale surf licks with Steve Reich minimalism, creating a line for the insistent percussion and tenor sax comets to dance over. Think Misirlou fucking with Electric Counterpoint and you’re on the right page. The rhythm loosens up, allowing the drums and saxophone to each billow up and take turns leading the sound. It’s a fantastic, tightly wound jam that ends in an effervescent free-jazz cloud.
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15. Beach House – Depression Cherry
Since I said it perfectly fine back in August, here’s my take on the album, where I claimed that Beach House Is Back and Better Than I Remembered:
In all seriousness, I haven’t enjoyed Beach House this much since first discovering the band in 2008. The first song kicks off bursting with renewed energy, much like Cocteau Twins’ very own Cherry Coloured Funk on their 1990 masterpiece Heaven Or Las Vegas.
I’m also picking up more of a spooky romanticism, nodding to the kind of dystopian 1950s American Dream vibe that permeates the music of Twin Peaks. Final song Days of Candy, in particular, could have come from the show’s very own Julee Cruise herself. I’m pleasantly reminded of Laura Palmer’s theme, Mysteries of Love.
I’d only listened to this album two times but I was so bursting with enthusiasm I had to write about it immediately. I get beyond excited when an artist finds a novel shade of shoegaze or unearths a new facet of dreampop. These sounds form part of the core of my musical identity; if jazz is the brains, shoegaze and dreampop are the heart. No other genre brings a blush to my face in this way. Suffice it to say that I’m shocked at how well this new Beach House album hits that preternatural sweet spot.
Here’s my favorite tune, Space Song.
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14. Freddie Gibbs – Shadow of a Doubt
After his Madlib collaboration, Piñata, ended up on my best of 2014 list, I wasn’t expecting to hear back from Freddie Gibbs so soon, much less so successfully and without his prolific production partner. I was under the impression that Madlib simply brought out a better side in Gibbs that finally hooked me, having never been truly impressed with what he’d released solo before. It doesn’t matter whether I was wrong or Gibbs simply took the inspiration and ran. Shadow of a Doubt is a dark master lesson in coke rap, with an earned emotional core, aged to perfection.
While Gibbs comes with a bevy of producers this time instead of a single well known partner, the sound is surprisingly cohesive and tightly wrapped. There’s a lean toward synthetic sounds rather than crackling samples, fitting its more dreamlike tone. The album is a collection of fragmented stories, telling a holistic picture of a fully realized man: celebrating, raging, revealing a tender, wounded side like breaks in the clouds, sun cracking open a dim day. Against the odds, this turned out to be one of the best hip-hop albums in a year bursting with strong material.
• • •
13. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
[Asthmatic Kitty Records]
Despite the popular narrative, this is so much more than just a “stripped down acoustic” album. Carrie & Lowell plays host to a ghostlike haze, connecting all the tracks and hovering around the edges of the delicate guitar tones. It’s similar to the shadow David Lynch casts on golden oldie hits in the dark corners of his film work. It lends an otherworldly afterlife charm to the collection of starkly emotional songs. Even if some of these tunes didn’t wrench tears from my eyes, they’d be impressive for their restrained yet melodically complex delivery. As it stands, this is Stevens’ most affecting album by a long shot, and his towering achievement. I haven’t heard music this devastating or cathartic in years.
I wrote last month about how one song in particular reduces me to a sobbing mess. Listen at your own risk.
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12. DJ Paypal – Sell Out
I honestly haven’t gained any insight since hearing the album for the first time over a month ago, so here’s what I said about DJ Paypal’s Sold Out:
I’m caught up, soaring over shattered landscapes on fast-foward, somewhere in the middle of second track Ahhhhhhh, when it hits me. I’m riding a crest of vertical samples, sharp points of horns and vocals, strung together with a piano solo, out of control and on my back. Hysterical. It’s the same inexorable rush that hits when you realize you’ve truly gotten carried away in the torrent of a great wild jazz tune. It’s that rare experience: behold! a gang of vital, angry, and independent pieces slam together in unthinkable clockwork precision. This sort of rollercoaster used to be conjured by the likes of Pharoah Sanders’ The Creator Has A Master Plan.
This album is another brick in the fortress of evidence that jazz never died; its simply outgrew its constrictive, recognizable forms. While it’s true that the fun stuff has seen a revival, thanks in no small part to artists like Kamasi Washington, reincarnating the spirit of free jazz at its commercial peak, the real innovation is happening in unexpected ways. When DJ Rashad broke through half a decade ago, it wasn’t because he was the best, most skilled footwork artist. He brought visibility to the genre because he evolved it in unexpected ways, adding melodic hooks while setting the often rigidly hyperspeed template on its ear. He bent the known playbook. He played with our perception of time.
This is the exploratory heart of what makes the best free jazz so revelatory. It’s also what I’m hearing in a new album for the first time since Rashad died. Sold Out does more than stand on the shoulders of a great artist. The album earns my ecstatic response by leaping beyond, exploring past the horizons we’ve heard from Chicago so far.
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11. Steve Hauschildt – Where All Is Fled
It’s hard to believe I never wrote about Steve Hauschildt before. Sure, I mentioned his former band Emeralds, but that was years ago. The thing is, he’s always made the kind of art that felt intrinsically enjoyable, in the shape of sounds I’ve enjoyed since childhood: lush, evocative synthesizer music. I don’t even have to think about what makes this album special, which is why I might have had a hard time thinking of what to write about while I looped it for weeks.
Where All Is Fled was one of my most listened-to releases of 2015, staying in my car nearly as long as my number one choice. Easily the most mature, layered, and narratively defined release of Hauschildt’s career, these 66 minutes explore every peak and valley of a cosmic landscape brimming with buried treasure. Stars beacon across the tops of this sound, drawing me inward as the liquid ambient tones of the introduction give way to arpeggiated bliss. If my description wasn’t clear enough, I’ll spell it out: this is music to drift through space to. Whether you’re hitting the hyper-drive as stars warp like beams of pure light, or undulating in a blooming nebula, this is the ideal soundtrack.
It’s also perfect for writing, which happens to be what I do for a living. Take this bias with a grain of salt; you might prefer your music to have more volatility. While I’ve got plenty of time for music that blasts my brain, sometimes the warm drift of tunes like this are all I need.
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10. Kamasi Washington – The Epic
When I introduced him in April, I asked: Who is Kamasi Washington? The answer, before spending weeks luxuriating in the sprawling, spiritual jazz fusion of The Epic, was this: He’s the guy who made all of the fantastic sax sounds that you loved on both recent (and brilliant) Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar releases. Albums You’re Dead and To Pimp A Butterfly would feel utterly lacking without Washington’s input; his freewheeling tones form the sharp jazz edge cutting through both masterpieces.
Now that I’ve had time to fully digest the nearly three hour album, living with various portions of it for days and weeks on end, I can safely say that it’s both one of the best pure jazz releases of the decade and a relatively conservative torch bearer of a time mostly unknown to those outside of deep jazz fandom. I mention this because my friends seemed torn: some were heralding the true return of jazz, while others were more cautious, waving it off as nothing truly innovative. While it’s true that the songs on here don’t break explicit new territory, they do explore places that haven’t been thoroughly mapped out since the mid-70s heyday of Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, and Don Cherry.
So to me, if someone is going to revive my favorite period of jazz history, I’m happy that it’s an artist as virtuosic, literate, and ambitious as Kamasi Washington.
• • •
9. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – A Year With 13 Moons
Named after a Rainer Werner Fassbender film, A Year With 13 Moons is as mind-bending and hyper-articulate as the director behind its namesake. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma had crafted several albums of immaculate guitar soundscapes before this release, but none grabbed my attention in an aggressive, urgent manner like this. The thought that came to mind, when the album came to a stop for the first time, was this: I’m hearing one of the greatest pure guitar albums since the peak years of The Durutti Column. Given that DC’s Vini Reilly is my favorite guitarist of all time, this simple thought bloomed into a minor obsession.
Although this album was the first I’d heard of the year, having listened to a leak before 2014 came to a close, it never left my mind. After making the connection, I realized a second cue was subconsciously reminding me of my longtime favorite’s work. The cover art seems to nod toward Durutti Column’s 1980s albums for Factory Records, in particular fan favorite LC. The sound itself vacillates between huge expanses of beautiful drone, rough textures, and effects-warped melodies, combining and recontextualizing these pieces in an unsettling dance. The album plays tricks on the mind, setting it adrift before yanking the rug out, plunging freefalls of noise between dreamlike placidity. It centers on one instrument, but you’d never know it at a glance.
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8. CFCF – Radiance & Submission
CFCF is one of my favorite musicians alive. His albums evoke an understated brilliance and his mixtapes are literally perfect. The Montreal-based artist, real name Mike Silver, is a direct inspiration for my own mixtapes, and has weirdly and specifically similar tastes to mine. Every time he releases something new, I devour it and savor the sounds on repeat. I’d warn about bias, but he seems to surprise me with every new album.
On Radiance & Submission, gently alien guitar tones and upfront but subdued vocals sail through an ocean of ambient pads, revealing a new sound that’s both more conventional and abstract than what’s come before. I’m reminded again of The Durutti Column, another one-man band who gradually revealed his own unconventional vocals. It’s a fresh evolution from the guy who evoked 20th century minimalism and Talk Talk on his previous long player, drifting further into a dream state with liquid structures and a hazy sense about where songs begin and end. The biggest appeal for me is the way these instantly appealing tones cushion dramatic rhythmic shifts, sliding effortlessly between surreal freefall and melodic precision. The entire set is a hermetically sealed experience that ends long before its singular welcome is worn out, begging for repeat plays.
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7. Elysia Crampton – American Drift
This is an incredibly profound listen and perhaps the most unique album I listened to in 2015. I’ll let my words from August speak for themselves:
These four tracks float over a lush synth ocean, often launching an artillery of midi horns and sublimely disruptive vocal shards. I’m reminded of Gregorian chants and the trunk-rattling, THX-approved production of Dr. Dre in the same moment. The purely electronic creation bursts to life from the husk of an ancient tree.
The music takes equal inspiration from the aesthetics of South American cumbia and Southern hip-hop, humming with proggy synthscapes and the displaced ghosts of Lil Jon, digital gunshots, and the neon glow of midi horns.
American Drift is outsider art in a sense, yet it’s inexorably tethered to distinct cultural, historical, and geographical anchors. The Bolivian-born Crampto grew up between Mexico and California, and currently resides in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia; her music expresses her tactile connection to the land.
The music also, in a way, expresses her ascendant story as a transgender artist who’s completing her physical journey at the same moment her music has evolved into something infinitely deeper than the alien pop edits that I’d heard before.
Click here to read the rest of the lengthy piece, including Crampton’s own description of her journey.
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6. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
Thanks to a friend, I was tipped off to Vince Staples just before this album dropped. I was told in no uncertain terms that Summertime ’06 was better than Kendrick Lamar’s funky hip-hop masterpiece from a few months prior, To Pimp A Butterfly. That’s a ballsy statement, I thought. Lamar’s latest is one of the most addicting listens I’ve had in years. So I clicked play the moment Staples’ album dropped.
It turns out that this is incredibly brazen, aggressively intelligent hip-hop with a hard swing and a deep heart. This two disc set of tunes is surprising, exciting, and dangerous; it’s some of the most subversive fun I’ve had listening to an album all year.
Summertime ’06 is an anxiously gripping listen. It’s so raw and futuristic that I took weeks to piece together how I felt about it. The production floats just out of reach of the vanguard, never letting my ears catch up to everything that’s happening. It’s cutting edge but never gets in the way of his powerful vocals. The lyrics convey a vast combination of world-weariness and humor that feels unbelievable coming from someone so young.
Staples is only 22 years old, screaming with potential. I can’t imagine what comes next. People are still trying to read into the magic behind this release. Such an unbelievable combination of hard edged swagger and thoughtful lyricism rarely comes together so perfectly, much less across an entire album.
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5. 2814 – 新しい日の誕生
Here’s just a small portion of what I wrote in a lengthy post about the album on Halloween 2015:
新しい日の誕生 sounds exactly as I’d hoped. The album opens with a softly repeating piano melody, drenched in reverb. A thick slab of dub bass drops in, and a flock of synths tear overhead. It’s all wrapped in a softly breathing glow, gentle as a massage and warm as a mother’s embrace. To listen to this album is to feel cocooned.
The template has been established, and the album doesn’t stray far. What it does within these confines is remarkable, evoking a subtle fluctuation between narcotic dub techno and gelid ambient. My love of both Lee Perry and Brian Eno makes it a flawless mood piece, even before the echo-laden synths arrive. When the elements coalesce, the music conjures effortless drift through cities of pure light.
The heart of the album is a nearly 10 minute passage driven by a languid guitar tone, some sort of neon surf rock transmitting from another dimension. It’s here that an unmistakable cyberpunk mood is established, and where my nostalgia buttons are pushed hardest.
• • •
4. Dam-Funk – Invite The Light
[Stones Throw Records]
I know funk isn’t cool. The genre is a perpetual underdog, seemingly irrelevant in today’s culture. Yet I find myself realizing that Invite The Light is one of the most complex, ambitious, and frankly futuristic albums of the year. As I wrote when it dropped, it feels vital and necessary, a full evolution of a sound that’s always floated in the periphery of popular music. The album is so densely packed with imagination, heart, and incredible twists that it’ll take weeks to unpack what it all means to me. I spent a couple months with the CD in my car and find myself grinning at the thought of another spin.
The greatest aspect of this album is how it takes its true-blue funky beating heart and loops off in a dozen directions at once, all while feeling cohesive and as distinct as a signature. One of the album highlights is a 10 minute techno workout that sounds more like Model 500 than anything George Clinton would have dreamed of. Another is a bass-centric ride through the clouds, all laser beams and prog-rock ambition. It’s the kind of sound that, taken as a whole, will either turn your cheeks red, or lock you into a serious addiction. I wrote all about Dam-Funk’s triumphant return in August.
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3. CFCF – The Colours Of Life
You may have noticed that CFCF already appeared on this list, just a few albums back. Somehow this favorite artist of mine shifted from a drip feed to a firehose this year, when it came to releasing new material. In a radical jump from the kind of shoegaze-tinged pop minimalism of his prior two major albums, two years apart they may have been, The Colours of Life stands as a completely new experience. I was toying with the idea of lumping this pair of 2015 releases together, but realized that it wasn’t fair from any angle; they’re simply too different, and CFCF deserves distinct recognition for each.
The reason this album stands near the top of my list is, first and foremost, because it’s the most listenable and replayable album I’ve heard in a long time. As I said upon its release last summer, the album is 40 minutes of unbroken, interlocking melodies, full of brightly blissful tones and worldly percussion. Timbre-wise, it’s more in line with CFCF’s modern minimalist work, while the fluid sound collage structure nods toward his monumental Night Bus mixtapes. To a preternatural fan like myself, the album is a slice of heaven.
The fact that he’s been nodding toward out-there music gods Ryuichi Sakamoto and Laraaji only heightened the experience. The label’s release page features a lengthy bit of backstory from the artist himself, mentioning The River EP, a new age-tinted instrumental journey into wide-eyed pan-global textures – and the original record where I fell in love with CFCF’s music.
As with a couple others on my list this year, The Colours of Life makes for absolutely perfect writing music. My friends in school attest that it’s the ultimate concentration soundtrack. Unlike virtually every other album in this category, this one makes a lively companion for road trips with friends or the tail end of a party. There’s a collapsing supernova of hooks folded into this collage, ready to be teased out by attentive ears.
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2. Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden Of Delete
This one is hard to explain. I’ll refer interested parties to my lengthy review of Garden of Delete. If you’d rather stay here, I’ve excerpted the most important bits below:
Some of the noisiest moments feel like a simulated storm being ripped to shreds from within, the neon pop of frantic game scores bursting outward. It’s hard to describe the transcendent feeling, realizing the corniest fragments of my childhood have been dissolved and transformed into something startlingly new. It’s an intellectual sucker punch to listeners of a certain age, and emotionally naked as anything this abstract could possibly be.
The calmer moments are awash in nostalgia for unreal places like Balamb Garden from Final Fantasy VIII. It’s a feeling I know too well, growing up with NES and Playstation soundtracks making more of an impression than the radio could ever have hoped to. The more disorienting side of the album embraces like a fever dream, exhilarating, a little too fast and dense to truly grasp. This too grips me with a firm sense of nostalgia; I actually played that particular Final Fantasy in one long streak while home from school, sick for 10 days with mono. It’s a peculiarly satisfying feeling to remember a serious illness so fondly. The best moments of this album reach that same strangely delicious head space and hammer away.
With a fresh layer of earnest emotion and a Berlin techno pulse beneath the surface, Garden Of Delete manages to tug at unknown parts of my heart. It delivers a quiet yearning and sense of loss like the phantom pain of an alternate life, something missed deeply without ever having known.
The incredible precision with which Lopatin takes us through this narrative rollercoaster is the key to grasping the entire album. The way that a million intersecting and hyper-fast ideas fit together like the most painstaking, slowly woven tapestry when the final song ends and the entire piece is revealed.
I’m not yet sure if this is my favorite Oneohtrix Point Never album, but I had to review it and express this idea: I think Garden Of Delete is the most perfect distillation of that sense of wild unpredictability and next-level shock that has colored all of his work so far. It’s as much a startling next step as a perfect introduction for new fans.
• • •
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
Seeing Kendrick Lamar‘s zeitgeist-defining To Pimp A Butterfly in the number 1 spot probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with my tastes. Truth be told, this album and Garden of Delete could have been tied for first. They are both utterly transformative experiences, albeit in completely different ways. I was obsessed with both albums for weeks at a time, leaning in for ever closer looks, trying to pick them apart at the molecular level to find out what, exactly, blew my mind so hard. In the end, my numbering boils down to the fact that I simply lived with Lamar’s album more. It became an important facet of life in 2015 that simply cannot be denied.
To Pimp A Butterfly spent over a month in my car without once being swapped for another CD. It was my work music for days on end, and I don’t normally even listen to rap while writing. More importantly than just my own relationship with the music is the way it united people in the most politically dangerous year in decades. These songs filled the air, a defining sound, smell, and language between all of my friends and millions more I’ll never know. It was, to put it bluntly, a hugely important cultural moment that happened to be a masterwork of jazz and hip-hop. So rarely do aggressively complex pieces of music like this become mega-hits, but when it happens, the shockwaves are felt by everyone. You didn’t have to be a hip-hop fan in 2015 to know all about this album, once it became a flashpoint for long-simmering anger and pain that’s bubbled beneath the cultural surface for years.
The lyrics are acutely political, spiritual, confrontational, resonating on a broad scale yet suffused with the most personal of demons. To listen at times is to experience an almost embarrassingly private struggle, a war that plays out in lonely high rise hotel rooms and inner city streets alike. The narrative connects the temptations of selling out with the global struggle for racial and economic fairness, and would be a sort of Dante’s Inferno for 2015 if it wasn’t also so incredibly fun to listen to.
These 18 tracks are a bold mixture of socially and psychologically aware lyrics with an incredibly nuanced and evolved delivery. Lamar employs a rogue’s gallery of voices and characters to play out this grand drama, evoking the wildly ambitious ghost of David Bowie’s revolving set of personas in the process. The dark and deeply funky production, shot through with an entire jazz band’s worth of all-star live players elevates every moment, tripping up expectations and overwhelming the listener with an instrumental prowess to match the vocals. The live-wire theatricality of the entire endeavor comes together in an astonishing coalescence as Lamar’s ambition and talent as a composer and performer meet in in the stratosphere.
It’s both incredibly audacious and earnest to a fault. The album feels invasive at times, hearing this famous rapper spilling his self-loathing guts in a drunken crying jag. Yet as I mentioned, everything’s wrapped in an earned sense of universal struggle, the intrinsic knowledge that we’re all in this together.
If you want to see a master artist at the peak of his powers absolutely nailing the zeitgeist, click play.
There are a lot more incredible albums from 2015, so be sure to read the much longer list: Best of 2015: 25 Honorable Mentions. If you’ve seen both and still feel that I missed something important, please let me know! I’m always eager to fill in my blind spots.