My Favorite Albums of 2015
I normally try not to get too Buzzfeed-y around here, but I let myself have fun at the end of every year. 2015 was a fun year in music, highlighted by the fact that over half of this list was nowhere near my radar 12 months ago. As much as I anticipate certain albums and count the days until a release, six or seven of my top ten every year is something I didn’t see coming. This year is no different. Without further ado, my (fourth consecutive?) Top 10 albums list:
10. Father John Misty — I Love You, Honeybear
Cynical, sappy, self-deprecating, and blunt, I Love You, Honeybear, by the alter-ego of Josh Tillman, is an interesting adventure from front to back. Lyrical dissonance abounds, as upbeat, sunny instrumentation is laced with self-loathing and underhanded love songs. “People are boring, but you’re something else completely,” Tillman sings. The same could be said for the album itself. Jangly, folksy musicians are a dime a dozen, but Father John Misty keeps this interesting with razor-sharp writing.
A song called “Bored In The U.S.A.” features a “save me white Jesus” outburst in the middle of the first chorus, and a “save me President Jesus” in the second. The whole thing is so rich that I found myself picking up a new nugget on each listen. It’s not happy. In fact, it’s pretty bitter and resentful. None of that should matter, because it’s really, really good.
Listen to: “Chateau Lobby #4”
9. The Weeknd — Beauty Behind the Madness
2015 was the year The Weeknd finally clicked with me. Aside from a passing enjoyment of a few early singles and features, I’ve never really bought into the hype. I’m extremely picky when it comes to R&B, and The Weekend was simply annoying to me. There are only so many hazy, drugged-out ballads I can listen to before I just give up. Hardcore fans have told me this album was a disappointing turn towards the mainstream, and that’s apparently what it took to catch me. This album is incredibly poppy, zipping right past “annoying radio hits” to Adele’s these-songs-are-everywhere-because-they’re-amazing territory.
Beauty Behind the Madness served as sort of a 2015 Michael Jackson album, both in style and success. “Earned It” tore apart the radio last year, going double platinum and peaking at #3 on the charts. How can you top that? By doubling down and hitting #1 twice in 2015 with “The Hills” and one of the biggest singles of the year, “Can’t Feel My Face.” Beauty Behind the Madness as a whole will go platinum shortly, and it’s no wonder. This is a parade of pop R&B magic.
Listen to: “Tell Your Friends”
8. Justin Bieber — Purpose
Alright, maybe it didn’t quite reach my overly-lofty expectations, but this was still a really good album, and I’ll defend that stance until I’m blue in the face. It’s not 2010 anymore. If you still laugh at Justin Bieber’s music, you can go back to listening to Mumford & Sons, or Katy Perry, or whoever else was a big deal five years ago. This was Bieber’s best shot to cement his place in the future of pop music, and he pretty much nailed it. A faulty album here and I think he would’ve been left in the dust with the Jesse McCarnteys and the Hilary Duffs of the world. Stacked front to back with huge production and grand slam hooks, Purpose checks all your boxes for pop music in 2015. It’s catchy. It’s genre-bending. It has good features. It’s extremely marketable, and most importantly, it’s really good. It seems like listeners are starting to sour to entire albums of bubblegum pop, and Bieber deftly avoids that trap here.
It has huge staying power, as nearly every song has single potential. “What Do You Mean?” kicked off at #1. “Sorry” currently sits at #2. “Love Yourself” found its way to #4. That makes 3-for-3 on singles hitting the Top 5. If Bieber decides he wants to keep doing the music thing, Purpose will be seen as a career cornerstone.
Listen to: “Company”
7. Drake — If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
The “surprise, here’s an album” release strategy seems to be something that’s here to stay. In Drake’s case, not only was the release date a shock, but so was the entire existence of the album. Nobody had If You’re Reading This on their radar in February, yet this mixtape-y album managed to be a major milestone in music this year.
If I were forced to pinpoint a favorite singular musical moment in 2015, it would be awfully hard to find anything that topped the beat switch on “Know Yourself.” I’m pretty sure nobody knew what Drake was talking about when he shouted that he was running through the 6 with his woes, but that didn’t stop it from being a smash. I think roughly half the tracks on the album underwent a stretch as an anthem. When Drake’s career is reviewed in hindsight, we’ll wonder how he was able to cram so many good songs into one project and keep it under wraps until precisely the right instant. The man has an incredible knack for timing, and this is further proof.
Listen to: “Know Yourself”
6. The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die — Harmlessness
Harmlessness is stubborn, headstrong, and powerful. Harmlessness is the calculated, angry response that follows life’s beatdown. Harmlessness feels like a shouting, teary-eyed monologue, which is what made me fall in love.
Humans by nature are drawn to comeback stories and tales of underdog success. Harmlessness is the musical form of that. So many parts of this album made me feel like applauding. The opener (“You Can’t Live There Forever”), the single (“January 10th, 2014”), and one of the closers (“I Can Be Afraid of Anything”) all come to mind. Rather than wallow in sorrow, this album makes me want to fight back. I really, really like this album, so its placement in the bottom half of this list should tell you all you need to know about how fun 2015 was.
Listen to: “January 10th, 2014”
5. Runaway Brother — Mother
There’s something to be said for experiencing music live. I saw these guys play four times in 2015, all before autumn rolled in. Having this music cranked into your ear canal by large speakers or belted at the top of your lungs in the middle of a crowd only makes it more endearing, which is something the album succeeds at anyways. If coming-of-age is your cup of tea, Mother is your album.
This one’s an 11-track marathon, opening with the dulcet chords of “Harvest” and closing with with the 7-minute “Youniverse,” which features a dead sprint of crashing guitars. It’s young and defiant. “We’re in a boat with many holes, but I can swim and I don’t need a life vest, thanks,” quips lead singer Jacob Lee. “I can preserve my own life.” It also perfectly captures the growing pains of the adolescent to adulthood transition, grasping some kind of maturity along the way. “I will rise above my pessimism. It’s ruining my life.” Mother has something to teach us all.
Listen to: “False Halo”
4. Travis Scott — Rodeo
“Let’s be clear–he’s punk rock.”
Music industry kingpin Lyor Cohen’s description of the 23-year-old Travis Scott isn’t entirely accurate, but the sentiment says a lot about the attitude and aggressiveness that Scott brings to the table. Rodeo is a writing mass of raw energy, splayed over 75 minutes. Nearly every track on this album is designed to rattle your brain a little bit, and the others are buttery smooth. Travis isn’t going to blow anyone away with lyricism, so he bolsters all his work with impeccable flow and melody, weaving in and out of some of the year’s best production like a snake.
Every track on Rodeo has the unique trait of seemingly snowballing out of control by the time it ends. Raw electric guitars on “90210” give way to airy female vocals before piano riffs jump in and nudge the track over the cliff, gaining steam as Travis rides on top. At this point, I’m not really surprised at Bieber jumping on a song and throwing down a rap verse, which means the most unique twist comes on the finale, “Apple Pie,” as Travis ventures away from his mom’s home in search of success. “I don’t want your apple pie, mama. I need my own pepper, please. My own legacy, my own recipe.” With instrumentals that hit you like a sucker-punch and relatable themes that bubble beneath the surface, you gotta believe he’ll find it.
Listen to: “Apple Pie”
3. Sorority Noise — Joy, Departed
Much like Harmlessness at #6, Joy, Departed aims to overcome life’s struggles. While Harmlessness feels like angry determination, Joy, Departed feels like heartfelt longing with a healthy dose of irreverence. “I just hope to be the one you call when you can’t sleep,” begs “Corrigan.” The album also comes to a realization that you’ll almost never hear from emo types. What if I’m just being a little melodramatic? “Maybe I’m my own greatest fear. Maybe I’m just scared to admit that I might not be as dark as I think. Maybe I am not the person that I never wanted to be.”
Depression can be a fickle beast that chews you up and spits you out. It’s hard to get momentum moving in a positive direction, and I think this Sorority Noise captures that struggle here. Joy, Departed is has its ups and downs, but you reach the end with optimism, screamed loud and proud: “I stopped wishing I was dead. Learned to love myself before anyone else. Become more than just a burden. I know I’m more than worthy of your time.”
Listen to: “Blissth”
2. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly
There are a handful of ways to rank albums, or any art form for that matter. For the purpose of this post, I’m just picking my favorites. However, if you had to rank based on importance and cultural impact, it would be basically impossible to choose anything other than this one. Rarely do you finish your first listen of an album and realize that it will be something that matters decades from now, but that’s exactly what I did.
I was in Europe when To Pimp A Butterfly hit the internet. There’s something bizarre about listening to this album while wandering the streets of Paris or zipping around France and Switzerland on bullet trains. Not only is Kendrick’s story brutal to listen to, but it’s also incredibly American, for better or worse. NPR’s Oliver Wang noted that the album aspires to be a musical version of the Great American Novel, which is the perfect way to describe it. This is 2015’s Grapes of Wrath. Looking at it from a literature context, modifying To Kill A Mockingbird for the title makes perfect sense.
It’s entertaining and captivating in the sense that it’s incredibly well-crafted, but it’s difficult to listen to by any other measure. To Pimp A Butterfly was born out of deep pain, so don’t expect many cheery moments. Kendrick waxes poetic about personal and racial struggles over 79 minutes of funk-ified hip-hop beats, bearing his scars for all to see and, hopefully, understand. At least a little bit.
To Pimp A Butterfly captures America in 2015 better than any other piece of art can. In a year where protesting was such a big deal, Kendrick provided an anthem. Plenty of terrible things happened this year, but Kendrick chimes in with defiance in the face of oppression: “But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright!”
Listen to: “King Kunta”
1. Sufjan Stevens — Carrie & Lowell
I’m drawn to sad albums like mosquitoes to a bug zapper. Last February, Sun Kil Moon’s Benji swept me off my feet with raw, unfiltered emotion, hardly even dampened by melody. 13 months later we got Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, and I fell in love again, further proving that I’m an absolute sucker for this kind of stuff. The album features a lot of Sufjan’s trademark flowery prose, although it feels more stripped back and straightforward than before. It’s almost as if the subjects he’s singing about have him so worn down that he’s left with no energy to do anything but tell it how it is.
On “Fourth of July,” we hear a deathbed conversation between Sufjan and his mother Carrie, and Sufjan plays both roles, offering parting remarks to himself from his mother’s perspective: “Did you get enough love, my little dove? Why do you cry?” On “The Only Thing,” Sufjan describes his fragile mental state following his mother’s death: “Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns to you somehow.” Eventually he finds the resolve to push forward: “The only reason why I continue at all … Blind faith, God’s grace, nothing else left to impart.”
Carrie died in 2012, so this album’s release in 2015 is proof positive that these emotional wounds are slow to scab, and that Carrie & Lowell probably plays an integral part of the healing process. It’s visceral and beautiful.
Listen to: “The Only Thing”
Honorable Mention: Modern Baseball — The Perfect Cast EP (read my review), The Wonder Years — No Closer To Heaven, Destroyer — Poison Season, Miguel — Wildheart, Drake & Future — What a Time to Be Alive