Best Albums of 2015

When I was a freshman/sophomore in college, I insisted that my “best albums of the year” lists were unequivocally correct. Whichever top 25 albums I listed were, by all measures, the absolute “best” of the year, no questions asked. With a little perspective, I now know that that was completely ridiculous. The 25 albums represented here are the “best” to me, according to my limited world view. I try to keep that world view as open as possible so that all albums are welcome here. I also try to take into account an album’s importance, reach, and influence on a larger scale. But ultimately, these 25 albums are the ones I loved listening to the most. I immensely enjoyed them, and I hope you did/will too.

best albums 2015 sufjan stevens

1. Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Fourth of July, Death With Dignity, Should Have Known Better, The Only Thing
For Fans of: Devastating acoustic folk, dealing with emotions head-on, Seven Swans, Oregon

Whenever I talk about Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, there’s one descriptor that I use every time, without fail: flawless. This album is completely flawless. The story behind it has been told many times before — Carrie & Lowell is Stevens’s attempt to grapple with the recent death of his often-distant, mentally-ill mother. He uses his childhood memories of spending summers with her in Eugene, Oregon as a medium of expressing his confusion. His heartache bleeds into every single song. On “The Only Thing”, he sings “The only thing that keeps me from driving this car half-light, jack-knife into the canyon at night…” On “Fourth of July”, “such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth.” On “Death With Dignity”, “Spirit of my silence, I can hear you, and I long to be near you, but I don’t know where to begin.”

The album also represents Stevens’s return to the spare folk that originally endeared him to us. After experimenting successfully with esoteric electronica and not-so-successfully with a second, more gimmicky Christmas album, Stevens picks (on the guitar) and plunks (on the piano) his way back to minimalist sounds. The music not only allows the heavy lyrics room to breathe, but even stripped of the weighty subject matter, the songs would stand alone as works of immense beauty — the pastoral picking (and Sigur Ros-like harmony-filled coda) on “Death With Dignity”, the haunting piano chords on “Fourth of July”, the post-rock swirl of sounds on “Blue Bucket of Gold”, the ethereal chords progression at the end of “Drawn to the Blood”. No album this year affected me as deeply and thoroughly as Carrie & Lowell.
 
 
best albums 2015 grimes 2

2. Grimes: Art Angels
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Realiti, Flesh Without Blood, Butterfly, World Princess Part II
For Fans of: Uniqueness, extremely catchy genre-bending pop

A lot of speculation and apprehension swirled around the release of Art Angels after Grimes (né Claire Boucher) scrapped a full album’s worth of material and struggled to find her place of comfort between weird electronic indie and bombastic Rihanna-esque pop. She then proceeded to handily blow everyone’s expectations out of the water once Art Angels dropped. It’s hard for words to describe the album’s unique sound. You could correctly classify “California” as country, “SCREAM” as nu-metal, “Flesh Without Blood” as Kelly Clarkson mid-2000’s top-40, “Belly of the Beat” as bubblegum pop, and “Venus Fly” as dance hip-hop. But somehow, despite the disparity in style and genre across every single track, Art Angels somehow, through some otherworldly miracle, manages to be totally cohesive. And not just cohesive, but breezy, catchy, fun, and endlessly re-playable. No one could have made this album besides Grimes. No one.
 
 
best albums 2015 kendrick 2

3. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: King Kunta, How Much a Dollar Cost, The Blacker the Berry, Alright
For Fans of: Miles Davis, Kamasi Washington, Tupac, genius, inspiration

Kendrick Lamar’s third album To Pimp a Butterfly is a work of genius. It’s singularly ambitious, creative, unique, important, and influential. “Alright” was an anthem and a message of hope for oppressed people protesting systematic violence. “How Much a Dollar Cost” was President Obama’s favorite song of 2015. “Mortal Man” straddled time by featuring a conversation between Kendrick and Tupac Shakur. “The Blacker the Berry” had Kendrick fiercely snarling about institutionalized racism over one of the hardest beats ever created. “King Kunta” had maybe the catchiest bass line of all time. “For Free?” introduced the world to jazz rap. To Pimp a Buttefly is not as immediately catchy as his first classic, good kid, m.A.A.d city, but it reflects Kendrick Lamar’s growth, maturity, and ability to stand the test of time. Kendrick, much like Grimes, imposed his artistic vision with confidence and thus, created an album that’s not only all his own, but is unlike anything we’ve ever heard.
 
 
best albums 2015 tame impala 2

4. Tame Impala: Currents
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Let it Happen, The Less I Know the Better, Eventually, Reality in Motion
For Fans of: Psychedelia, disco, dance, electronic, studio wizardry

Kevin Parker, the mastermind behind Tame Impala, used to be firmly entrenched in the early 1970’s. But with an expanding pop sensibility (and an increased love for synths), Currents adds a little 1980’s and 2010’s flavor to the mix. The album opens with the best song of the year, “Let it Happen”, an eight-minute epic with woozy melodies, swirling production tricks, the best-sounding drums I’ve ever heard, Daft Punk-style harmonies, and a blazing guitar riff. The rest of album sounds full, complete, inviting. “The Less I Know the Better” is a straight funk-disco throwback about trying to get over an ex. “Yes I’m Changing” not only lyrically reflects personal changes in Parker’s life, but embodies musical changes as well, with its full-blown 1980’s-synth sound. “Reality in Motion” has a booming sound with a solid groove. “Eventually” has one of the best interactions of music and lyrics: Parker sings “I know that I’ll be happier and I know you will too” — sounds grounded and healthy — but then after a pause, he comes in with “…eventually.” Currents is clever, relatable, huge-sounding, and well-produced. And more than any other artist, I can’t wait to see what he decides to do next.
 
 
best albums 2015 jamie xx 2

5. Jamie xx: In Colour
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Loud Places, (I Know There’s Gonna Be) Good Times, Gosh, Sleep Sound
For Fans of: The xx, woozy muted subtle DJ-scapes

In Colour, the British producer’s first solo album after primarily serving as the backbone for The xx, is fully engrossing and captivating. The thing that sets Jamie xx apart from other electronic DJs are his quiet moments of nuance. For a lot of his peers, the rush comes from dramatic build-ups and beat drops, but Jamie xx’s strength are the moments where elements are subtly stripped and added, faded in and out, at just the right volume, and at the just the right time. These moments make the build-ups and climaxes even sweeter (exhibit A: “Loud Places”). And then, once he’s fully sucked us into a hazy trance, he slices through it with “(I Know There’s Gonna Be) Good Times” featuring Popcaan and Young Thug, the biggest surprise and most joyous track of the year.
 
 
best albums 2015 sleater kinney 2

6. Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: No Cities to Love, A New Wave, Surface Envy, Fangless
For Fans of: Badass riot grrrl rock n’ roll, killer guitar sounds, Carrie Brownstein, Portlandia

Unfortunately, I wasn’t cognizant of Sleater-Kinney during their heyday from 1995 to 2005. Once I became aware of them, they were already well into their hiatus. Carrie Brownstein became more known for her role opposite Fred Armisen in Portlandia, while the members released excellent albums with various side projects (Wild Flag, Ex Hex). Luckily for all of us, they reunited at the end of last year and released No Cities to Love in January. It seems like most getting-the-band-back-together reunion efforts turn out to be lackluster, but not so for Sleater-Kinney. There are absolutely no phoned-in moments here — every track has a pulse, every yelp and yowl is energetic, and every riff feels vital.
 
 
best albums 2015 father john misty 5

7. Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: I Went to the Store One Day, Bored in the USA, When You’re Smiling and Astride Me, I Love You Honeybear
For Fans of: Chamber pop, Fleet Foxes with more lyrical edge, beautiful tenor voices, cynicism

Josh Tillman, now known has Father John Misty, was once the drummer for Fleet Foxes. But Tillman was a beautiful, sardonic peacock that needed to spread his wings, so he quit the band and went solo. Two albums later and he’s now a more present figure than Fleet Foxes have been over the last four years. On I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman explores his feelings of unadulterated love for his now-wife amidst his extremely cynical worldview. Perhaps there’s no clearer mission statement than the end of “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” when he says “I haven’t hated all the same things as somebody else since I remember.” He’s sarcastic — “Now I’ve got a lifetime to consider all the ways I’ve grown more disappointing to you” on “Bored in the USA” even to the point of outright contempt — on “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment”, “Of the few main things I hate about her, one’s her petty, vogue ideas / Someone’s been told too many times they’re beyond their years.” So much is said about the lyrics, but the music is just as impressive to me. “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment” sounds like it came off of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” has a beautiful melody, background vocals, and and little electric guitar licks reminiscent of Abbey Road. And Tillman’s voice is just stunning, there’s no other way to say it. He puts it on full display on the beautiful (and least cynical track of the bunch) album closer, “I Went to the Store One Day”, as he sings “For love to find us of all people, I never thought it’d be so simple.”
 
 
best albums 2015 courtney barnett 3

8. Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Depreston, Pedestrian at Best, Dead Fox, Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party
For Fans of: Nirvana, Australian accents, lyrics about things that shouldn’t be funny but are

Courtney Barnett made the best straight-up rock album of the year, full of catchy hooks (“Debbie Downer”), Nirvana-worthy riffs (“Pedestrian at Best”), and hilarious expositions on mundane things (“A possum Jackson Pollock is painted in the tar” on “Dead Fox”). She also accurately captures the small but real anxieties of our day, like the prospect of buying a house in the dreary suburbs on “Depreston”, or taking the thoughts right out of my brain (“I want to go out but I want to stay home”) on “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party”. I love Courtney Barnett so much — she’s funny, humble, down-to-earth, and really freaking good.
 
 
best albums 2015 alabama shakes 3

9. Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Gimme All Your Love, Don’t Wanna Fight, Sound & Color, This Feeling
For Fans of: Southern soul-rock, bluesy voices, the old Black Keys, Led Zeppelin

After the breakout success of their debut album Boys & Girls, and their multiple Grammy nominations, Alabama Shakes could have easily played it safe by opting to do more of the same on their sophomore effort, Sound & Color. But instead, they pushed themselves, expanded their sound, wrote really solid tunes, and made an incredibly satisfying album in Sound & Color. It’s bluesy and soulful. It can rock hard (“Don’t Wanna Fight”, “The Greatest”), it can quietly soothe (“This Feeling”, the title track), it can groove (“Guess Who”, “Shoegaze”), and it can do some of all three (“Gimme All Your Love”).
 
 
best albums 2015 miguel 2

10. Miguel: Wildheart
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Coffee, waves, leaves, …goingtohell
For Fans of: Sexy rock-infused R&B, Los Angeles

Miguel came on the scene with a unique brand of R&B and an amazing voice. On Wildheart, his third studio album, Miguel breaks free of label/industry limitations for R&B singers and comes into his own, displaying his true personality. Believe it or not, the album owes just as much to arena rock as it does R&B (take “face the sun” as an example, complete with a guitar solo from Lenny Kravitz). The whole album nods to Southern California, and as an L.A. County native native, I’m a sucker for it. He said that the production on “Coffee” was meant to sound like a Los Angeles night. “waves” (which is a superb track by the way) would fit in great during a sunset in Santa Monica. At the end of “Hollywood Dreams”, Miguel sings “Up and down Hollywood and Sunset, up and down Jefferson and Crenshaw.” And then there’s “leaves” near the end of the album, with it’s “Sweet California, sour California” refrain, as he sings about how he never saw winter coming with California’s unchanging leaves. Wildheart doesn’t have a single that matches the power of “Adorn” from his previous album, but it’s a more complete, creative, and ambitious record from front to back.
 
 
best albums 2015 kurt vile

11. Kurt Vile: b’lieve i’m goin down
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Wild Imagination, Pretty Pimpin, That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say)
For Fans of: Neil Young, The War on Drugs, weary but poignant ramblings
 
 
best albums 2015 vince staples

12. Vince Staples: Summertime 06
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Loca, Norf Norf, Señorita
For Fans of: Bleak, down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is rap
 
 
best albums 2015 natalie prass

13. Natalie Prass: Natalie Prass
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Bird of Prey, My Baby Don’t Understand Me, Why Don’t You Believe in Me
For Fans of: Dusty Springfield-style Memphis soul, Feist, Jenny Lewis, impeccable horn and string sounds
 
 
best albums 2015 viet cong

14. Viet Cong: Viet Cong
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Bunker Buster, Continental Shelf, Death
For Fans of: Metz, Television, Cloud Nothings, hardened, black & white, hard rock/post-punk
 
 
Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 3.09.45 PM

15. Majical Cloudz: Are You Alone?
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Downtown, Silver Car Crash, Disappeared
For Fans of: Music perfect for cloudy/rainy days
 
 
best albums 2015 deerhunter

16. Deerhunter: Fading Frontier
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Breaker, Snakeskin, Living My Life
For Fans of: A poppier side of Deerhunter, the best indie rock around
 
 
best albums 2015 car seat headrest

17. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Style
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Something Soon, Times to Die, Maud Gone
For Fans of: Julian Casablancas, lo-fi bedroom indie rock that burrows in your head
 
 
best albums 2015 beach house 1best albums 2015 beach house 2

18. Beach House: Depression Cherry / Thank Your Lucky Stars
Depression Cherry: Spotify | YouTube; Thank Your Lucky Stars: Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Space Song, Levitation, Majorette, Elegy to the Void
For Fans of: Two albums in the same year, dreamy electric organs, being put in a trance
 
 
Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 3.08.33 PM

19. White Reaper: White Reaper Does it Again
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Pills, Make Me Wanna Die, Sheila
For Fans of: Japandroids, Wavves, garage punk
 
 
best albums 2015 my morning jacket

20. My Morning Jacket: The Waterfall
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: In Its Infancy (The Waterfall), Like a River, Spring (Among the Living)
For Fans of: My Morning Jacket’s best material in a decade
 
 
best albums 2015 martin courtney

21. Martin Courtney: Many Moons
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Vestiges, Airport Bar, Foto
For Fans of: Real Estate, really chill 1970’s AM rock
 
 
best albums 2015 the decemberists

22. The Decemberists: What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Make You Better, Cavalry Captain, Carolina Low
For Fans of: Mid-2000’s indie
 
 
best albums 2015 beach slang

23. Beach Slang: The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas
For Fans of: The Gaslight Anthem, big bold heart-on-sleeve punk
 
 
best albums 2015 death cab

24. Death Cab for Cutie: Kintsugi
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: No Room in Frame, Black Sun, The Ghosts of Beverly Drive
For Fans of: More mid-2000’s indie, a return to form, getting over Zooey Deschanel
 
 
best albums 2015 asap rocky

25. A$AP Rocky: At.Long.Last.A$AP
Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Jukebox Joints ft. Joe Fox & Kanye West, Wavybone ft. Juicy J & UGK, Canal St.
For Fans of: The chillest rap imaginable, smoky haze-filled 60’s blues samples
 
 
Honorable Mentions :: Unknown Mortal Orchestra: Multi-Love, Leon Bridges: Coming Home, Tuxedo: Tuxedo, The Arcs: Yours, Dreamily, American Wrestlers: American Wrestlers
 
 
And now, in compact list form:

1. Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell
2. Grimes: Art Angels
3. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly
4. Tame Impala: Currents
5. Jamie xx: In Colour
6. Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love
7. Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear
8. Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
9. Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color
10. Miguel: Wildheart
11. Kurt Vile: b’lieve i’m goin down
12. Vince Staples: Summertime 06
13. Natalie Prass: Natalie Prass
14. Viet Cong: Viet Cong
15. Majical Cloudz: Are You Alone?
16. Deerhunter: Fading Frontier
17. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Style
18. Beach House: Depression Cherry / Thank Your Lucky Stars
19. White Reaper: White Reaper Does it Again
20. My Morning Jacket: The Waterfall
21. Martin Courtney: Many Moons
22. The Decemberists: What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
23. Beach Slang: The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us
24. Death Cab for Cutie: Kintsugi
25. A$AP Rocky: At.Long.Last.A$AP

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