If there’s one consistent story in 2015, it’s quality music rising into the mainstream. Just look at the big stories of the year: Tame Impala, Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Jamie XX…all of these artists are responsible for making tasteful sounds popular. It’s a beautiful thing to see pop radio being replaced for a more hands-on exploration of music, and as that continues to happen, I feel like music blogs take on more of a roll as taste-makers. No one is relying on Casey Kasem to give them new music anymore. Instead, as music releases, it is up to the internet to boost it up. If an artist goes viral, it’s because enough people thought it was awesome. That happened a lot this year, and it seemed to happen to musicians making quality sounds.
Here’s my 35 favorite releases of the year, including a heavy leaning on hip hop and jazz. Every person has a sound of their year, and you’ll see what mine was after perusing through the list. Check out something you haven’t heard before, and always keep digging for new music.
-Chris Tart [editor-in-chief]
35. Four Tet – Morning / Evening
This two-track EP hardly qualifies as an album, but at 40 minutes long, it also isn’t the shortest effort on the list. Four Tet created some beautiful music with “Morning” and “Evening,” and despite not feeling like a record, the project was great.
34. Neon Indian – Vega Intl. Night School
The 80s synth sound was alive in 2015, with Vega Intl. Night School and others putting a new spin on a vintage sound. This is a party record that you can play all the way through to soundtrack your good times.
33. Ducktails – St. Cathedral
He may be best known now for his role in Real Estate, but Matt Mondanile is also an awesome solo musician. St. Cathedral takes the bedroom project Ducktails to the next level with awesome production and luscious sounds. It’s different than Real Estate, but a natural progression for the guitarist/singer who has already released multiple albums with the Ducktails project.
32. Ghostface Killah & BADBADNOTGOOD – Sour Soul
What did you think would happen when Ghost linked up with some of the dopest beat players out there? BADBADNOTGOOD laced the Wu-Tang God with a bunch of beats, and Ghost did his damn thing with them. The result was different than either party’s typical record, which showcased a depth that would have otherwise went unseen.
31. Cheatahs – Mytholigies
Mythologies is vital shoegaze album from a band that I had never heard of. I first listened to this when Rough Trade was playing it one day while I was lurking around the shop. Just goes to show you that even if you’re pockets are empty, a trip to the record store can yield great, new music.
30. Marc Cary – Rhodes Ahead Vol. 2
The Harlem-based keyboardist released a great, modern jazz album with Rhodes Ahead Vol. 2. If you’re itching for some smooth jazz that dives into drum ‘n’ bass, hip hop, and some worldly sounds, then look no further.
29. Snoop Dogg – Bush
Snoop Dogg might be hip hop’s most versatile OG. With Pharrell by his side, Snoop actually impresses with his funky, 70s-inspired album Bush. Guests include Kendrick Lamar and Stevie Wonder…who else could pull that off?
28. Khruangbin – The Universe Smiles Upon You
Khruangbin’s music is a total anomaly: it’s trippy, but well-structured with a definite groove. It’s equal parts thai-funk and psych-surf. It’s unlike anything else you’ve heard, but isn’t trying too hard. The trio has a bright future, and the universe is certainly smiling upon them, as it is us.
27. The Breathing Effect – Mars Is a Very Bad Place For Love
Here’s another album that takes jazz concepts and dresses them up for the modern age. These kids are young, and doing this Dark Side of the Moon-ish jazz sound that I just can’t get enough of.
26. Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down…
As one of the present day’s most interesting singer-songwriters, Kurt Vile had a high bar set for his sixth studio album. He reached it with a variety of folk, indie, and rock all tied together by his unique brand of Dylan worship.
25. Bad Plus Joshua Redman
The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman are four of the better jazz musicians out there playing. When they got together to create an album, it didn’t disappoint, as the complex compositions keep you on the edge of your seat for the duration of the listen.
Brainfeeder did wonders for jazz in 2015. Amongst their releases was Kneedelus, the collaborative effort between Daedelus and Kneebody. After a sort of clunky start, the LP smooths out to deliver some of the most intriguing music of the year. This record is full of meditative moments, avant-garde stylings, and a unique approach from two unlikely companions.
23. The Game – Documentary 2-2.5
Game came back strong with three discs worth of material between the Documentary 2 and the 2.5 release that came shortly after. By collaborating with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Nas, Anderson .Paak, Dr. Dre, Drake and more, he rose to the top with a fresh batch of tracks that further fostered the ‘new west’ sound.
22. Lettuce – Crush
We’re so stoked that Lettuce followed up 2012’s Fly. As one of the hardest working live bands in the business, Lettuce’s members have been busy with Break Science, DRKWAV, and Pretty Lights Analog Future Band, not to mention working alongside a huge number of musicians. It would seem that the other projects have helped Lettuce to hone in on a sound that wasn’t achieved in the earlier days of more straight-laced funk. The new stuff can get dark and moody, and with a tasteful dose of electronics, Crush is one of the best releases of the year.
21. Young Thug – Barter 6
I tried to understand Young Thug for a while to no avail, and then Barter 6 came out. This weirdo’s melodic style of rap was perfected with this record, in my opinion, as he passed up on club bangers to make something a bit more, dare I say, tasteful.
20. Title Fight – Hyperview
Title Fight was a band I got into when I was going to hardcore shows 7 or 8 years ago. They were playing pop-core stuff that wasn’t unlike Saves The Day’s early material or Lifetime, so when I heard the shoegazey greatness of “Chlorine,” I was more than intrigued. It’s cool to see adolescent music grow up, and Hyperview is the epitome of just that.
19. Ty Dolla $ign – Free TC
This album will be one of the more underrated albums of the year, and I believe it’s because of the features. With big-name rap and R&B artists on each track, Free TC almost appears to be a mixtape, but it’s actually a seriously well-thought-out homage to Ty’s incarcerated brother. Ty is a serious musician, and the track arrangements are rich the entire way through. Each skit, ad-lib, and sound effect serves a unique purpose, and the multi-talented Ty breezes through ratchet R&B (“Know Ya”), G-funk (“Only Right”), proper 00’s soul (“Guard Down”), acoustic soul (“Solid”), hyphy bay area sounds (“Saved”) and modern rap (“Blase”) while maintaining the sound of a proper, cohesive record. Hats off to Ty.
18. Floating Points – Elaenia
Floating Points is a genius. No, seriously, he has a PhD in neuroscience. Apart from the album cover, which I think is a poor choice given the record’s content, Elaenia is everything that has me excited about electronic music in 2015. It isn’t made for the club, but you can dance to moments of it. It isn’t trying too hard, but it is trying. It adds new sounds and ideas to classically-arranged jazz music in a way that even Gil Evans would be stoked on.
17. Wilco – Star Wars
I was on my roof, looking out at Manhattan, scrolling through Facebook, and what do I see? Wilco just released a new freakin’ album. In true Wilco fashion, it’s different from every other release in their catalogue, offering punky influences into their Americana perfection.
16. Punch Brothers – Phosphorescent Blues
Chris Thile doesn’t do anything bad in my book. Punch Brothers have released a few awesome albums, and Phosphorescent Blues might be their best since Punch. The production is perfect, and it captures the most interesting string band as they create an album about technology’s toll on togetherness.
15. Dr Dre – Compton
Any time the Doctor blesses us with new music it’s a treat. When he dropped a proper West Coast classic with Compton, I was beyond elated. He invited new cats like Kendrick and Anderson .Paak, legends like Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg, and old pals like The Game and Eminem to join the party, resulting in a dense rap album that plays out – like Dre’s other LPs – like a movie.
14. Gov’t Mule – Sco-Mule
Warren Haynes and John Scofield are two kindred spirits on the guitar. When they get together, it results in something seriously special. It was on display when I saw two shows at the Capitol Theatre earlier this year, and it was captured 16 years ago when they recorded the music that would eventually be released this year. It’s instrumental, shredding Gov’t Mule + Scofield…enough said.
13. My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall
After seeing four nights at the Beacon Theater, there was a split-second when I thought about putting this as number one. Truth be told, it isn’t the absolute best record of the year, but it is seriously awesome. With more Motown than alt-country, Jim James proves why he is one of the most diverse musicians in the world.
12. Destroyer – Poison Season
Theatrical indie rock isn’t something I would typically love, but Destroyer’s Poison Season is just thoroughly solid. Tracks like “Girl in a Sling” wouldn’t be out of place on Broadway, but it doesn’t sound over-the-top or pretentious.
11. Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Goddamn Earl is miserable on this record, and it makes for some killer hip hop. It was produced entirely by Sweatshirt himself, save one track, which is always commendable. It’s a shame that he had to hit these lows to make this great music, but such is life.
10. Travis $cott – Rodeo
Here’s one of those mainstream rap records that is just jammed with songs that don’t leave your head. “Antidote,” “3500,” “Flying High,” and basically every other track on the LP received multiple spins due to $cott’s awesome brand of Kanye worship. He’s one talented dude, capable of producing amazing instrumentals and lacing them with very catchy vocal parts. The substance isn’t there on a lot of tracks, but the sound is definitely there.
9. The World Is A Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – Harmlessness
Harmlessness is another example of grown-up adolescent music. TWIABP takes emo revival to new heights as the varied-sounding new LP uses unorthodox instruments and song arrangements to make it more than your typical emo record.
8. Toro Y Moi – What For?
I don’t understand why this album didn’t gain more traction. Sure, it isn’t doing anything mind-bending, but the execution was flawless in my opinion. Toro Y Moi made an indie rock record that sounds like his best Beatles impression, but no one was that stoked. I thought it was a fantastic record.
7. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
Double-disc rap efforts are very, very tough to execute. Luckily, Vince Staples has no shortage of things to say. As he offers a new perspective on California gang life, No I.D. helps him craft a West Coast classic in Summertime ’06.
6. Jamie XX – In Colour
Jamie’s In Colour perfectly captured the 2015 pop sound, which is a solid pop sound if I do say so myself. Cuts like “Good Times” and “Loud Places” were songs-of-the-summer contenders, and the rest of the album was littered with the British producers quality sound.
5. Drake – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
The man just continues to progress and make killer music. He said in an interview with Fader, “I mean, I’m really trying. It’s not like I’m just sitting here, just fuckin’ shooting with my eyes closed. Like, I’m trying. I’m really trying to make music for your life.” I think the effort shows, and as pop culture’s biggest icon, he released a hell of a project with If You’re Reading This. There are a handful of songs I’ll skip, but the rest of them I couldn’t stop going back to. “Know Yourself,” “Star 67,” “You & The 6” and a few others stand as some the best material he’s delivered in his career.
4. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
I believe this to be Sufjan’s best album to date. That doesn’t come from a crazy fan of his though; I’ve liked what I’ve heard in the past but haven’t spent a lot of time with the earlier records aside from Illinois. With Carrie & Lowell, however, I think he really channelled his emotion in such a clear way. Seeing as the subject matter was so personal, I believe it evoked the best display of feelings for a singer-songwriter who is known for putting them on display.
3. Kamasi Washington – The Epic
I’m just so happy that this music exists. The Epic is a jazz record with the intensity that has been lacking in the genre. This one is popping up on nearly every year-end list, which isn’t exactly normal for a triple-disc, nearly 3-hour jazz debut. It’s just that good, though. Brainfeeder came through to put jazz on display, and Kamasi Washington is re-introducing the music to a new generation who might have grown up thinking it all sounded like Duke Ellington.
If you haven’t listened, you must. If you haven’t seen him, you must. Kamasi Washington plays with the type of intensity only a few players can really channel.
2. Tame Impala – Currents
There just isn’t a bad moment on this record. It was a step away from the more psych-rock leanings of Tame Impala’s earlier work, and it worked. Kevin Parker played everything on Currents, which is amazing because it sounds like such a perfect record. I hope that projects like Tame Impala don’t go away for a long, long time, because it seems like they hold the power to make great music popular. Every single song on this one is amazing, and it creates such an easy LP to listen to.
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
I don’t have enough time to make all of the bold claims I wish to say about this album. I truly think I’ll teach a class on it one day. It’s the densest record I think I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s one of the best rap records ever created. It’s brilliant, period.
This record took time, and a lot of people didn’t give it the time needed to understand it. Kendrick takes you on a journey of his life, the good, bad and ugly, through the LP, which is centered around the poem you hear throughout the record. With To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick helped to put on some amazing musicians who have all of a sudden found their way into every blog’s eyes: Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Bilal, Anna Wise, Knxwledge, Terrace Martin, and more. All of these cats are much bigger names now that they’ve been a part of the best album of the year, and that’s a true win for music, pop culture, and, to an extent, humanity at large.
“How Much A Dollar Cost” was Obama’s song of the year; “Momma” was mine. “Alright” was probably the record of the year, soundtracking everything from protests to parties across America. To Pimp A Butterfly regained my faith in hip hop and in the power of positivity through music. The LP didn’t conform to any current trends in hip hop. Sonically, its jazzy vibe is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Lyrically, it’s easily the strongest rap record of the year. With so many hands contributing to the album, it’s a truly beautiful representation of powerful minds collaborating to create new and exciting music. In my opinion, there isn’t anything much more beautiful in this life.
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