Music continued to get weird in 2015 and that was for the best. The mainstream pop landscape was full of sincere hitmakers like Drake and Carly Rae Jepsen, who topped the charts but didn’t sacrifice their identities or odder interests. And in the underground, genre continued to become more and more meaningless, as acts like Grimes and Liturgy continued to evolve their signature, unclassifiable sounds while newcomers like Christine and the Queens and The Posterz mutated the worlds of pop and hip hop respectively. Narrowing down the best albums of the year to just ten selections is always difficult, but 2015 made that harder than usual.
Christine and the Queens – Christine and the Queens
It’s been six years since Robyn descended from Gay Heaven and gave unto the world Body Talk. Since then she’s made a few EPs and appearances on other people’s tracks, but as for a proper full length, nothing. Since we live in a capitalistic society, it was only a matter of time before someone came in to fill the market gap. Enter Christine and the Queens. One part Robyn, one part Sia, one part Stromae, and a dash of David Byrne in the big suit makes Christine and the Queens one of the most interesting pop acts in a very long time. Actually the solo project of Heloise Letissier, COTQ makes international pop music that flows in and out of pop and hip hop, English and French, and everywhere on the gender spectrum. Every song on this record builds to a cathartic release, from the declarative thesis statement “She’s a man now!” in the opening track “iT” to the insane “Paradis Perdus” which reworks Kanye West’s “Heartless” to somehow be even sadder. Body Talk birthed “poptimism” but gave us nothing to be poptimistic toward. Until now. – Dylan Garsee
Drake- If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
Drake’s great trick is that he’s always capable of more vulnerability than you thought he was. But developing alongside his plush melancholy is a sociological consciousness and a wry, hindsight-driven self-awareness. These qualities suffuse everything about If You’re Reading This Its Too Late, from its knowingly overwrought title to the gobsmacked final song. “I’m Game of Thrones with it, mama“, he sings on “You And the 6,” and you don’t doubt for a second that he means it. With this raggedly crafted mixtape, Drake confirms his position as both king and creator of his chosen genre-within-a-genre – Mason Walker
Mountain Goats- Beat the Champ
When John Darnielle announced that the next Mountain Goats album would be about professional wrestling, I was curious if it was his return to the devastating autobiographical songwriting of The Sunset Tree (Darnielle and his stepfather shared a love of wrestling) or if it would be more like “Ox Baker Triumphant” from the Babylon Springs EP, focusing on the mythology of these masked men and women (I touched on this a bit in covering Box Brown’s Andre the Giant: Life and Legend in our list of 100 incredible comics of the 2010s).
Beat the Champ ended up being a bit of both.
I’ve been listening to the Mountain Goats for about three years now, and having listened to their entire discography a few times, I can safely say Beat the Champ treads new ground both lyrically and sonically. “Southwestern Territory” opens the album with soft piano and a literal description of where Darnielle saw his wrestling heroes (the Grand Olympic Auditorium in LA), setting the scene for what’s to come. It’s soft and beautiful, and the woodwinds (compliments of Matt Douglas) give it a strange and delicate feeling I was not expecting on an album focusing on (faux) brutal entertainment. Darnielle and company quickly jump into the upbeat “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” that flees the ring with a gut punch calling back to The Sunset Tree with “You let me down but Chavo never once did/You called him names to try to get beneath my skin/Now your ashes are scattered on the wind.”
The rest of the album is ups and downs like the back and forth of any good fight, and while I would recommend you stick around through the ring of the last bell, there are obviously some highlights to the album if you just need to pick a few.
- “Animal Mask” might seem like it’s about a battle royal and the bonds that can form in such a chaotic fight, but Darnielle introduced the song as being about the labor and delivery room as well for one of the most unique songs about becoming a father.
- “Heel Turn 2” wrestles with the moral choices between lightness and darkness as a face considers doing a heel turn, and it features an uncharacteristically long (three minutes or so) piano outro — it might actually be the longest recorded Mountain Goats song.
- “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan” retells of the death of Bruiser Brody, “Luna” details Luna Vachon’s tragic final years, delivering history lessons of the sport.
By the time I hit “Hair Match,” I’ve received a glimpse at a group of entertainers I knew virtually nothing about before, and they have been given a level of depth I cannot begin to fathom. Because Darnielle treats wrestlers and rock stars with the kind of reverence one would expect for saints and kings; it’s how he and his band can make an album about professional wrestlers and let it ring with remarkable depth. – David “I don’t follow instructions” Fairbanks
Kendrick Lamar- To Pimp a Butterfly
This record has been written about so much and so well that to say “There is nothing new I could possibly add” would still be a cliche even though it’s true. So instead I’ll just confirm some suspicions you might have had. Yes, it is the Great American Hip-hop record. Yes, it is an unparalleled musical feat that spans the history of black American music and then some. Yes, it is the most important record of 2015. And I don’t mean #important. If Drake made the most relevant album of 2015, then Kendrick made the most capital-“I” Important one. It dropped March 15–one week after the US Department of Justice cleared Darren Wilson of any civil rights violations in the shooting of Michael Brown–and went on to soundtrack the ensuing outrage and unrest that defined most of 2015. But no, it is not didactic; it is as artful and fun and complex and affirming and troubling as it could be. As it should be. But perhaps the most impressive feat of all is that in the countless voices Kendrick takes on in his attempt to speak for so many, his own voice is never lost in the tumult.
To Pimp a Butterfly is about so much, but above all it is about Kendrick Lamar self-consciously assuming the role of a musical, political, and pop messiah. “Let these words be your earth and moon/You consume every message/As I lead this army make room for mistakes and depression” he raps on the final track, “Mortal Man.” By album’s end Kendrick is beleaguered, paranoid, and angry and “Mortal Man” is a barrage of questions and condemnations: “When shit hits the fan is you still a fan?” In that song he goes on to compare himself to Nelson Mandela, the biblical Moses, Huey Newton, Malcolm X, JFK, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Jackson, and–most fittingly–Michael Jackson. On an album studded with the voices of black American music’s patriarchs–from Ronald Isley to George Clinton to Dr. Dre to TuPac–the voice that remains silent belongs to the King of Pop who perhaps looms largest over the proceedings. Because while Kendrick may be the most important figure in hip-hop, with eleven grammy nominations and a Taylor Swift feature he is well on his way to becoming a King of Pop himself. Of course, all that that entails, all that he stands to gain and lose, is laid out sprawling across 80 minutes of some of the best music 2015 had to offer. Pressing play is easy enough. Loving it is complicated. – Joshua Palmer
The Posterz- Junga
The most basic reason The Posterz are so alluring is they don’t sound like anyone else in rap right now. From a technical critique, yes, the flow is insane, the beats are phenomenal and the visuals are effective, but who cares? Coming from Montreal with essentially no rap scene, the group is well aware that they are THE rap scene and by continuously striving to be unique they’re ensuring there is no defining sound to Montreal rap. If Junga had been a complete retread of their previous successes “All I Know” and “The Bass Song” I would have been thrilled and left that shit on repeat for weeks. Instead Junga is a completely polished and diverse release that tells your expectations to fuck off.
“Want It All” Is a noisy track that bumps right along with Joey Sherrett’s downright schizophrenic production. Intentional and precise; machine gun stutters switch out without warning for lyrics that slowly ooze their way into your eardrums. Despite the title, “Rumble” starts off light with a fairy flurry of keys, a delicate and airy affair that ensures something dark is lurking around the corner. As the layers of production pile on the drums steadily increase and you’ll flinch in anticipation of what will surely be an epic beatdrop. However right as it reaches the crescendo almost everything ceases in a near acapella that showcases Kris the $pirit’s ability to seize your attention and reminds you, fuck your expectations. One of my standout favorites, “Ben Up” made me double check my player wasn’t set to artist shuffle as it begins with a soaring pop din before a syrupy stoner swagger reassures you. It takes its sweet time dwelling in the incredible production with some excellent guitar work as it hums and rumbles onto a bonafide hit chorus. Eventually the crooning ceases and where most radio hits would wind down instead the track indulges in a heavy machinery of instrumentation before a final chorus comes round. “Ben Up”, like the entirety of Junga, is the type of fucking hit label execs sacrifice their firstborn for; it’s only a matter of time before the whole world realizes that. – Nate Abernethy
Carly Rae Jepsen- Emotion
Despite the near deafening chatter surrounding this album–“Is she better than Taylor?”, “Is her persona big enough to really make it?”, “Isn’t 30 a bit old to be writing this kind of music?”, “Now that she’s been critically vindicated, will she finally blossom into a real artist?”–Carly Rae Jepsen’s music has proved to be louder than the demands we’ve made of it. At the very least it’s more fun to listen to. Song for song, note for note, Emotion is a pitch perfect pop record. While it’s been heralded as 2015’s most underrated album to the point that it cannot reasonably hold such a title, such petty concerns vanish as soon as that shameless sax hook opens “Run Away With Me,” signalling the countless pleasures to be found across these twelve tracks. But this album isn’t just about pleasure. It’s about the crushing totality of emotion. I mean Emotion. I mean E•MO•TION. Jepsen spelled it out for us, she named her album after it–hell she even defined it for us on the cover (the example sentence: “She was trying to control her emotions.” Christ, can you imagine?). The only thing I find frustrating about this album is that it reminds me how incredibly inept I am at feeling things compared to her. But then again that’s probably because I have a thing or two to learn. So let’s all just sit back, listen, and consider all that we could do with this E•MO•TION. – JP
Hamilton: An American Musical
How does a bastard, orphan, immigrant, decorated Revolutionary War hero and founding father take 21st century America by storm? Through a hip hop soundtracked Broadway play, apparently.
After performing his “The Hamilton Mixtape” at the White House Poetry Jam, Lin Manuel-Miranda worked to expand it to a 2-act theater experience. But for those who can’t get tickets at this now wildly popular play, don’t be concerned. The Hamilton soundtrack contains the majority of the play’s content, coming together so seamlessly that you miss little by listening at home.
After reading Ronald Chernow’s biography on Alexander Hamilton, Lin Manuel-Miranda made the connection between Hamilton’s writing, which the founding father used to leave his impoverished birthplace in the Caribbean, and modern day hip hop artists’ use of their music to leave their own. Thus, through hip hop and the immigrant narrative, Hamilton not only celebrates the founding of the United States, but also modern American culture. Amid the strong emotional moments (“Satisfied”, sung and rapped by Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler Church, is a personal favorite of mine), comedic ballads (“You’ll Be Back”, sung by Jonathan Groff as King George III, the only character played by a white person), and multi-genre hybrids (“Non-Stop”, as performed by the whole cast) are homages to classic hip hop such as Grand Master Flash’s “The Message” and The Notorious B.I.G’s “Ten Crack Commandments.”
With all the orchestration that comes with Broadway plays, Hamilton has depth and complexity in every track from instrumentation to the vocal performances. After it makes itself your default record for a month, you will still find new details to pick out at the 50th listen. Even without mentioning the nationwide impact it has had on the internet and popular culture since the soundtrack’s release, that qualifies Hamilton as one of the best records of 2015. – Ray Sonne
Sufjan Stevens- Carrie & Lowell
I don’t know where to begin (“Death with Dignity”). What happens during the 43 minutes of Carrie & Lowell is the reason people cry during an Easter service or while looking out at the Grand Canyon. It’s the translation of something enormous and cosmic and unmanageable, something so beyond what we as people are capable of fully grasping, into something physical, expressible, and perhaps most importantly possible. Throughout our lives, again and again, the terrifying unknowables of the universe confront us and demand response. In our vast inadequacy, the best we can do is not shy away, the most we can do is make small and beautiful and honest sounds. It is both when and how we are most human.
Carrie & Lowell is both quiet and not. It both is and isn’t simple or spare. In the context of Sufjan Steven’s entire body of work, it can be understood as less grandiose, less orchestral, and, some might argue, less ambitious. But the small fact that he is a genius complicates these claims, the degree of pin sharp precision in both the arrangements (which, from a purely technical standpoint, are verging on perfect) and the delicately disarming lyrics, as well as the complexity of the subject matter and the depth and purity of the vocal expression, rendering the comparisons hardly even worth making at all.
Each element of each song is masterfully controlled and yet, with elegance and a total lack of pretension, this album serves as a raw and intimate documentation of what it’s like to have completely lost control. It is as much the sensation of standing in a silent empty room while your heart and brain and eyes seem to be exploding as it is the sensation of being surrounded by chaos and tragedy and all you feel is your lungs taking in and sending our air. Passion is not just for romantic love. There is passion in the longing for family, passion in regret, in grief, in desperation, in collapse, and in resolve. Every second of Carrie & Lowell is quiet passion. Fuck me I’m falling apart (“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”). It’s one of the most human albums ever made. – Kayleigh Hughes
Liturgy- The Ark Work
When I write about music, I usually listen to the album I’m writing about just to put me in the right headspace. And whenever that doesn’t work I just throw on Sade and she fixes everything. And when that doesn’t work, I write in silence as a punishment. And if the words still don’t come out, I know that what I’m writing about is special. Enter The Ark Work. This record will grab you by the hair and shove your face directly into the Ark of the Covenant. It’s not metal, it’s not rap, it’s truly experimental in ever sense of the word. Liturgy has managed to make a record that will chew you up, spit you out, and leave you for dead every single spin. This is a metal record, no matter what anyone says. Yes, there are no guttural vocals or guitar solos, and most of the record is mid tempo at best. But there is still an overwhelming sense of dread that percolates throughout the entire album that sticks with you. Liturgy is a band that doesn’t get taken seriously by both the black metal community and the broader “indie” scene. Both camps see the band as pandering to the other guys. Too metal for indie music, too indie for black metal. With The Ark Work, Liturgy transcends the bullshit of music scenes and internet fighting and blessed us with a once in a lifetime record. – DG
Grimes- Art Angels
Reminding us that hard candy might be sweet but it will easily break your fuckin’ teeth, Art Angels balances glossy and sleek with frenetic and fierce in an effortless way that indicates how Claire Boucher has grown throughout the years as Grimes, establishing herself with this most recent release as a visionary with a complete handle on her sound. Grimes’ reality is different than ours, so it’s fitting for one of the best tracks off Art Angels (and of her career to date) to have a title like ”Realiti.” She sees the world through a set of veils and filters that I wish I had, while also creating and taking up residency in a number of original universes and otherworldly environments. As an album, Art Angels is incredibly smooth, engaging, and consistent from beginning to end, yet it is very much not a concept album. Still, it does a better job establishing setting, mood, and themes than most actual concept albums, a fact that can be attributed to Boucher’s confidence and ability as she artfully lays the groundwork for and constructs new musical realities.
One of many in a long list of great choices Grimes made on Art Angels is the joyful application of what she noted as “real instruments”–especially guitars–throughout the album. Go listen to the bright and radio friendly, country-tinged “California” and think about the fact that it comes from the best synthpop/electronic album not just from this year but the past several. Indeed, Art Angels would make an absolutely outstanding pure pop album. From “California” and the undeniable magic of “Belly of the Beat” to the bloodthirsty helium-high chants of “Kill V. Maim,” I just assume at this point that Claire Boucher must dream in hooks. The album almost begs to be covered by a pop artist, except that what skyrockets Art Angels past other 2015 releases in any of the genres often used to describe Grimes’ music is that it expertly layers some of the most iconic and vital elements of all those genres in surprising, challenging, and complex ways, constructing fourteen complete and delicious tracks, all grounded by a vision and voice as singular to the artist as her own fingerprints. – KH