I have a Spotify playlist titled “2015 Best Tracks”. It clocks in at around 3 hours and 15 minutes. I also have a Spotify playlist titled “2014 Best Tracks”. That one runs just over 2 hours. This speaks to the kind of bounce-back year music gave us. It’s like Music was coming off an ACL tear that kept it out of commission for most of 2014, only to roar back with Carson Palmer-like numbers in 2015.
I’ll resist making any more sports-music comparisons for the rest of this, but you get my point. After a disappointing year where I only truly loved ONE album, I found an abundance of spectacular music in 2015.
Scan just about any genre and you’ll find standouts. Drake and Kendrick Lamar kicked off the year by trading in-their-prime stunners. In pop, Adele gracefully returned with her record-breaking 25 and, on a quite smaller scale, Chvrches released another deep and catchy indie pop album. Folk music saw Sufjan Stevens and The Tallest Man on Earth deliver what might be career best efforts — and that’s saying something — while My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall was at least their best work in a decade. Genre-defying acts like Father John Misty, Tame Impala, and Destroyer followed up wildly praised albums with more greatness.
And to think, we didn’t even get highly anticipated new albums from giants like Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Macklemore (just kidding). Those will have to wait until 2016, leaving plenty to look forward to. Now to my favorites from this year.
Sound and Color – Alabama Shakes
The Desired Effect – Brandon Flowers
1989 – Ryan Adams
10. Coming Home – Leon Bridges
Wikipedia tells me he’s 26 from Fort Worth, Texas, but Leon Bridges certainly doesn’t seem like it. Possessing a true throwback gospel/soul sensibility, his first album, Coming Home, came out of nowhere this summer. Sometimes nostalgia-themed acts like Bridges can go awry in a hurry, failing to stand on their own as an artist. No issues here. Bridges clearly knows how to write a meaningful song — “Lisa Sawyer” is about his mother, “River” may be the best spiritually-themed tune of the year — but he also knows how to compose feel-good tracks you can throw on at that summer pool party.
9. Carrie and Lowell – Sufjan Stevens
This was seen as a return to Sufjan Stevens’ roots, and in some ways it was. After the eclectic sounds of The Age of Adz, Stevens hearkens back to his early days with straightforward, soft, and beautiful folk melodies. However, in other ways Sufjan goes deeper on Carrie and Lowell, a heartrending collection of 11 songs mostly about his deceased mother. Eschewing much of the quirky and eccentric humor that he’s known for, this is a remarkably mature and moving record. “Should Have Known Better” and “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” alone make this a standout.
8. I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty
The battle between cynicism and sentimentalism is never an easy one to capture. Father John Misty is probably better at this than any musician working, which is why his music makes me more than a little uncomfortable. His debut, Fear Fun, was excellent, but I Love You, Honeybear surpasses it because of one simple fact: Josh Tillman (aka Father John) fell in love. This turn of events forces the cynical bastard in him to confront this. The self-loathing struggle is something to behold, and it kept me coming back to this one throughout the year.
7. Surf – Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment
Chance the Rapper, the most exhilarating young rapper on the scene, co-stars in this collaboration that was released over the summer — which makes sense, since it’s a perfect summer companion. Surf was the most fun I had listening to music all year long. The best track, “Sunday Candy”, is pure sugar. But it’s the wondrous mix of jazz, hip-hop, and R&B that makes this one a fulfilling listen in any season.
6. The Waterfall – My Morning Jacket
From The Waterfall‘s opening notes, you can tell My Morning Jacket is on a higher level than they have been since at least 2005’s Z. The balance they strike between their eccentric indie sensibility and their Allman Brothers-jam band tendency is on the mark. For instance, on the surface “Compound Fracture” is the former, while “Spring (Among the Living)” is the latter, but each song on the album has a mix of what makes MMJ so fantastic.
5. Currents – Tame Impala
It was always going to be difficult to follow up such an endlessly listenable triumph like 2012’s Lonerism, but Tame Impala went the best possible route. Currents expands their sonic arsenal by mostly replacing those reverb-heavy guitars on their first two albums with a propulsive electronic presence that doesn’t disrupt their psych-pop/rock groove. “Let It Happen”‘s almost 8-minute runtime somehow doesn’t feel over-indulgent at all and you could make the argument that “Eventually” is their best-ever song. They should be a much more popular band than they are at the moment.
4. In Colour – Jamie xx
Besides #1 on this list, I didn’t find anything as musically adventurous as Jamie xx’s In Colour this year. In fact, I’m still finding my way through its cavernous interior. Even those who don’t really go for dance/dubstep/house music (like myself) can appreciate what he’s doing on this record. There’s never a dull moment. “Loud Places” feels like conversing with a loved one just outside a club. “I Know There’s Gonna Be” feels like a relaxed, no-problems summer BBQ. As a whole, Jamie xx has created something that is unique, pleasurable, and awe-inspiring.
3. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late – Drake
If Surf is the perfect summer record, Drake’s out-of-the-blue “mixtape” this year was the perfect winter record. From start to finish, this album feels like its thermometer is set to single digits. The minimalist beats on top of Drake’s distinct voice show that he’s truly in the zone right now. This was a left turn away from the R&B-inflected sound we’ve become used to from him, but when such an unconventional song like “Know Yourself” becomes a sensation, you know Drizzy’s feeling it. If a certain other rapper didn’t release anything this year, he would be on top of the hip-hop world.
2. Every Open Eye – Chvrches
With an uncanny ear for compelling hooks, Chvrches have built a following with catchy synth-pop. That doesn’t change on Every Open Eye, and thank God it doesn’t. Just about every track has you humming the chorus to yourself later in the day. As excellent as their 2013 release The Bones Of What You Believe was, lead singer Lauren Mayberry and Co. have come back even more assured in their craft. The kickstart joy of “Never Ending Circles”, the slow-build-to-explosion of “Clearest Blue”, the melancholic touch of “Down Side Of Me”, it’s all just so well done. Even when things start to feel a little mechanical toward the end, they finish by clearing out the thumping basslines and noisy synths with Mayberry’s crystal-clear tenor on the touching “Afterglow”. Bravo.
1. To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
Each and every track on To Pimp a Butterfly deserves its own 2,000-word reflection, so trying to encapsulate, in this small space, why this is my favorite album of 2015 simply can’t be done. Dense, humorous, challenging, complex, and profound only just begin to describe this record. When Kendrick released “i” to the public a few months before this album’s release, many thought he had gone the easy, commercial route. Oh, how very wrong they were. Instead, we were treated to a sprawling masterpiece, both musically and thematically. Jazz, funk, and hip-hop all fuse together on one 16-track stunner, while Kendrick muses on race, class, faith, and personal demons. “Alright” is rightfully seen as the uplifting anthem of 2015, but it’s the internal torment of the preceding song, “u”, that makes the triumph of “Alright” so earned. As for Kendrick, he’s earned every ounce of praise that’s come his way.
Top 10 Songs
10) “Sparks” – Beach House
9) “Lonely Town” – Brandon Flowers
8) “Sunday Candy” – Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment
7) “Loud Places” – Jamie xx
6) “What Do You Mean?” – Justin Bieber
5) “Compound Fracture” – My Morning Jacket
4) “Dream Lover” – Destroyer
3) “Should Have Known Better” – Sufjan Stevens
2) “Hotline Bling” – Drake
1) “Alright” – Kendrick Lamar