Top 20 Albums of 2015
From widely anticipated albums from legendary artists to unexpected gems by up-and-comers to the triumphant comeback of a certain misbehaving pop star, the music scene of 2015 was definitely unpredictable. Here are 20 of our favorite releases from last year, listed in alphabetical order by artist.
No year-end list would be replete without including “25,” the album that single-handedly broke just about every digital sales record in music history. Adele reflects wistfully on her past with a refreshingly modern touch, satisfying fans and critics alike with a combination of her signature ballads and more experimental, upbeat tracks. Arriving after the singer’s nearly five-year hiatus from the music industry, “25” proves well worth the wait.
After a three-year silence, Baltimore-based dream pop duo Beach House emerged with the release of “Depression Cherry” in August. The album can be best described as the soundtrack to a daydream: smooth and clean, with trance-inducing instrumentals, while lead singer Victoria Legrand’s ethereal vocals dance between themes of euphoria and sadness. Following a period with an uncertain future, Beach House reasserted its place atop the genre with tracks including “Space Song,” “Sparks” and “Levitation.”
There is something about Belle and Sebastian’s tunes that gives them an air of nostalgia, regardless of the listener’s relation to the music. The Scottish indie band’s first album in five years, “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance,” is a reminder of this phenomenon. This time, the band tries its hand at a more dance-heavy sound, all the while retaining its witty poeticism and fun, upbeat style.
2015 saw the release of Bob Dylan’s 36th album. “Shadows in the Night” is a distinct addition to Dylan’s uniquely extensive catalogue, and features his interpretation of numerous traditional standards made famous by Frank Sinatra. “Shadows in the Night” is beautifully arranged and oddly mesmerizing given a generally melancholic tone. Fifty-three years after his first release, Dylan’s stunning performance reinvigorates both his continued relevance and that of the songs he covers.
Considered by many music critics to be the best debut album of 2015, Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett’s “Sometimes I Sit …” was mostly recorded in just eight days. Barnett’s wry observations and biting humor make for an intriguing listen, while her insight into the melancholy of everyday life reveals a wisdom far beyond her 28 years. Described by Rolling Stone as a combination of Bob Dylan and Jerry Seinfeld, Barnett will surely remain an indie-rock fixture for years to come.
Rather than release a proper solo follow-up to 2013’s hugely popular mixtape “Acid Rap,” Chance the Rapper teamed up with aptly named trumpeter Donnie Trumpet and the rest of his band to make the year’s most carefree, optimistic record. Chance comes through with his trademark infectious energy, but “Surf” gives plenty of other artists room to shine as well: J. Cole, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, Big Sean and many more. Drawing together elements of jazz, soul and dance music, “Surf” is the sonic embodiment of summer.
After years of unparalleled hype for Dr. Dre’s since-abandoned third album “Detox,” the legendary producer and rapper finally broke out from seclusion and released “Compton” in August. Thankfully, despite his hermitic lifestyle, Dre is as fired up and relevant as ever. Over sweeping, cinematic production, he paints a vivid picture of life in the eponymous city. An added bonus: Compton’s own Kendrick Lamar delivers three jaw-dropping guest verses.
The 6-God’s fourth studio album was one of 2015’s top-selling releases, and with good reason. An impassioned ode to the city of Toronto and the trappings of fame, it solidified Drake’s place at the top of the hip-hop hierarchy. Swathed in hazy, icy beats, largely from OVO’s Boi-1da and 40, “If You’re Reading This …” is artfully constructed in both sound and substance. Stay tuned in 2016 for “Views From the 6,” Drizzy’s most anticipated album to date.
Under his pseudonym Father John Misty, eccentric indie-folk artist Josh Tillman released his sophomore album “I Love You Honeybear” this year to universal acclaim. In this autobiographical, love-themed concept album, Tillman reflects on his personal life and marriage while simultaneously satirizing modern society. The follow-up to 2012’s “Fear Fun,” “Honeybear” features a captivating blend of passion, disillusionment and apathy over folk, blues and jazz arrangements.
Canadian singer, songwriter and producer Grimes’ fourth album was the year’s best pop album that never quite made it to mainstream radio. “Art Angels” is fiercely uncompromising and inventive, yet still universally accessible to anybody with an ear for top-notch production and addictively catchy hooks. Grimes pushes the boundaries of pop music, effortlessly switching between club-ready bangers like “Venus Fly” and lighter, bubblegum tracks like “California”.
Edgy electropop artist Halsey released her studio debut “Badlands” to widespread acclaim, reaching the top spot on the Billboard Alternative chart. The album walks a fine line between the rock, synthpop and indie genres. This, together with Halsey’s eccentric and genuine persona, has lent to the album’s widespread appeal. Provocative singles “Ghost” and “New Americana” caught the attention of many, while the remainder of the album made them stay.
Jamie Smith, better known as Jamie xx, transported listeners into an ocean of electronica on his critically acclaimed debut solo effort, bucking cliched EDM sounds in favor of an eclectic collection of dazzlingly immersive tracks. Against a backdrop of shimmering disco, U.K. garage and house music, the extensive use of sampling throughout the album — culled from British television and radio — creates an emotive blend of mood and memory. “In Colour” abandons the pounding rave archetype and zeroes in on the emotional intimacy of the dance floor.
“Alone in the Universe” is the product of Electric Light Orchestra founder Jeff Lynne’s attempt to reform the group following its disbandment in 1986. Musically, the album is a departure from what one expects to hear from ELO, but is a welcome recovery from the band’s late work, which was seemingly bogged down in the ’70s. While the album does not rekindle the glory of “Out of the Blue” or “A New World Record,” the album in itself is nearly flawless.
“Crosseyed Heart” is Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards’ third solo album and first in 23 years. Richards links up with the X-Pensive Winos, and some 20 other credited musicians including Norah Jones, in an enthralling amalgam of rock, blues and reggae. The album’s leading single, “Trouble,” captures the spirit of the Stones, while “Love Overdue” moves with a slinking dub groove. One of the greatest guitarists of all time, Richards proves he can still write and perform at the highest level with a swagger uniquely his own.
Expansive, emotional and undeniably powerful, Kendrick Lamar’s genre-bending “To Pimp a Butterfly” was the year’s most ambitious and high-minded album. The sheer depth of the social and political messages put forward is staggering, and the project expertly captures the zeitgeist of 2015. From the righteous anger of “The Blacker the Berry” to the triumphant resilience of the anthem “Alright,” Lamar channels the hopes, fears and frustrations of black Americans with the finesse of a true poet. This is an album that will remain impactful for years to come.
After 2010’s “Innerspeaker” and 2012’s “Lonerism” solidified Tame Impala as a household name in psychedelic rock, the Australian five-piece shocked fans and critics alike with its third album, “Currents,” which features a synth-laden, electronic sound. What hasn’t changed is the band’s mastery of melding profound, emotional lyrics with contagious melodies. With a genre-bending retro vibe, this is easily the most mature and contemplative breakup album of the year.
Houston native and Kanye West progeny Travis Scott may not be the most skilled lyricist, but “Rodeo” is so much fun to listen to that it doesn’t matter. Complete with sternum-rattling bass and soaring synths, the album is bolstered by fantastic features: Only La Flame could successfully pair Justin Bieber and Young Thug together — the standout track “Maria I’m Drunk.” This strong rookie effort bodes well for Scott’s future as both a rapper and producer.
A nearly three-hour hip-hop and R&B musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, comprised almost entirely of black and Hispanic actors playing the Founding Fathers sounds as though it could never work, but the genius of writer and lead actor Lin-Manuel Miranda makes it look easy. With songs as technically intricate as they are enjoyable and informative, “Hamilton” is a historical and cultural marvel. Good luck getting a ticket, though; it’s the hottest show right now on Broadway.
Long Beach, Calif. rapper Vince Staples has garnered praise from hip-hop aficionados since 2010, but it wasn’t until 2015 that he released his debut studio album on the historic Def Jam label. “Summertime ’06” may be considered a gangster rap album, but it never glorifies the lifestyle. Rather, it is an unflinchingly raw, bleak look at grim realities. Over booming minimalist beats from No I.D., Staples shows off his impressive lyricism and storytelling on every track.
After Frank Ocean reneged on his promise to drop his highly anticipated sophomore album in July, R&B fans needed a savior: Enter Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd. After a trio of well-received mixtapes and an underwhelming debut album, Tesfaye resurfaced with a winning combination of Top-40 grandeur and seductive crooning. Brimming with ’80s Michael Jackson style production, “Beauty Behind the Madness” is as eerie as it is alluring.