Here are a few lists (Buzzfeed much?) that highlight notable records from this year, etc. These lists only become harder to do since I’m discovering more music than ever before. Anyways, enough talk — on to the music!
Top 15 of ’15
These are not ranked 15 to 1, but they are grouped into tiers. I guess the tiers are ranked in countdown fashion, but I wouldn’t take it as gospel.
Tier 5: Netflix & Chill
Pretty self-explanatory. Albums that are perfect for driving, chilling, parties, dancing, etc.
Jamie xx – In Colour
Definitely ventures beyond the familiar sound of his band. To say it’s just a dance album feels like an understatement. It’s not just that I enjoy this album; it’s also that this album strikes a certain chord in the listener, I think. A review described this as a dance album for introverts, which I totally agree with. The album generally leans towards minimalism, so that every element/moment in a particular song means something. Engaging album from start to finish. (Tracks to check out: Loud Places, The Rest is Noise)
Neon Indian – Vega Intl. Night School
It’s as 80s as a mullet. One helluva electro/synth pop album. A very accessible album that will make you want to dance, if you’re into that. (Tracks to check out: The Glitzy Hive, Slumlord)
Tom Misch – Beat Tape 2
Keep your eyes on this 20 year old composer/producer/instrumentalist from the UK (oh, and he can sing too). His promise/talent was obvious in all the little EPs and instrumental tracks he shares at a prodigious rate. Technically, Beat Tape 2 is his sophomore full-release, but given the rawness of Beat Tape 1 and the years that have passed since then, Beat Tape 2 truly feels like his coming out party. The featuring musicians are as diverse as the music, which ranges from chillwave, jazz, to neo-soul. The sky’s the limit for this cat. (Tracks to check out: Wander With Me, In the Midst of It All)
Seoul – I Become A Shade
Fun little dream pop album by this Montreal band. Reminds me a bit of early Toro y Moi. It’s like the perfect soundtrack to driving around on a cool night. Solid debut album – looking forward to seeing how they develop from here. Kudos to Bon Jaik for introducing me to their music. (Tracks to check out: The Line, Stay With us)
Tier 4: Babymakers
Yeah. Don’t think I need to explain this tier.
The Internet – Ego Death
Rich instrumentation (Thundercat would approve of some of the bass work on the album) and smoky vocals from this neo-soul motley crew. Little bit of funk and jazz sprinkled throughout the album. Some Maxwell vibes. Oh, and Janelle Monae’s a featuring guest to boot. Just a smoooooth, relaxing album. Will definitely tide me over until the new Frank Ocean album comes out. (Tracks to check out: Under Control, Something’s Missing)
Kehlani – You Should Be Here
I don’t really consider myself an R&B fan, but I loved this mixtape. It feels very real, the lyrics, singing, and all. Even though the production isn’t perfect, its rawness somehow enhances the authenticity of the album. Altogether, this mixtape feels like a hot knife that just cut through the butter that is the oft-inauthentic pop scene. In terms of magnitude, the NBA equivalent of would be like when Brandon Jennings dropping 55 points during his rookie season. Unlike Jennings though, Kehlani’s future is bright. (Tracks to check out: The Letter, Down for You)
Tier 3: Just Plain Fun
Really fun, really straightforward, really solid albums. These albums might not be pushing musical/artistic boundaries, but what these albums do, they do it very, very well.
Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION
So, as great as T. Swift’s 1989 was, there were still a few tracks I was ‘meh’ on. On E•MO•TION, I enjoy every single track. To use an NBA analogy, I feel like 1989 is Paul George, while E•MO•TION is Kawhi Leonard. The former might have a higher ceiling, but I do think the latter is a more consistent package. On this album, every song’s message seems to come out loud and clear. On top of that, it’s got that 80s vibe, which I’m always a sucker for. It’s a great pop record with zero pretentiousness. A quick google search revealed that she got sick of the “Call Me Maybe” fallout, spent a few years trying to carve out artistic independence from her label, did a musical, etc. Whatever she learned in the past few years, I feel like it all comes together on this album. (Tracks to check out: Emotion, Making The Most)
CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye
They set a pretty high bar with their debut full-length (The Bones of What You Believe), but it’s clear that Every Open Eye represents an evolution, even if there is a bit less diversity/adventure in the songs. The production is more polished, Lauren and Martin both improved their vocals (thanks to additional training), and the music here feels like it’s meant to be played in full-scale arenas. The band seems more confident in itself than ever before, and it shows in many of the self-affirming messages/songs on the album. For lack of a better description, CHVRCHES took the best of Bones, dialed it up to 11, and out came Every Open Eye. (Tracks to check out: Clearest Blue, Playing Dead)
Mutoid Man – Bleeder
Mutoid Man is a supergroup consisting of longtime collaborators/friends Steve Brodsky (Cave In) and Ben Koller (Converge). In Bleeder, their first full-length effort, Mutoid Man has created a hellacious album full of shredding, riffing, and breakdowns. Take Koller’s chaotic drumming (the backbone of Converge’s music) and Brodsky’s shredding (reflective of Cave In’s diverse discography), and you’ve got one of my favorite releases this year. Given the members live on different sides of the country and Ben’s #1 priority being Converge, we may have to wait a while (or forever) for new material. If we never hear from them again, I’m just glad they left us with this buzzsaw of an album. (Tracks to check out: Bridgeburner, Dead Dreams)
Blackalicious – Imani Vol. 1
The first thing I did after listening to this album was go back and listen to all their previous albums. I can’t believe I didn’t discover them until now. Given that my legitimate foray into hip hop is still relatively recent, I guess I could be forgiven for not discovering a group that, prior to this, hadn’t released an album in a decade. Gift of Gab’s rhyming and flow is otherworldly (0:30 to 1:15 on “Alpha and Omega” might be my favorite moment in any song this year), and Chief Xcel’s production is on point, managing to capture both recent sounds while maintaining some old school influences. Lots of warm, positive vibes and introspection here. (Tracks to check out: Blacka, On Fire)
Tier 2: Almost Famous
Albums that are unique and pushing boundaries, etc., but not the easiest of listens.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
I mean, what else is there to say about this album? It says a lot about TPAB that it makes all comparisons to his previous album, GKMC, pointless. It advances the dialogue (both lyrically and musically) that D’Angelo started with Black Messiah and then some. It’s an album in which his rap skills are, relatively speaking, less noteworthy. The ideas are complex, grand, and unabashedly personal, much like the music. Kendrick’s collaborations with Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat continue to pay rich dividends. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s a necessary one. (Tracks to check out: King Kunta, These Walls, i)
Kamasi Washington – The Epic
I discovered Flying Lotus and Thundercat on my own, but I found out about Kamasi Washington through him being “the saxophone guy from ‘To Pimp A Butterfly'”. The Epic certainly lives up to its name, running almost three hours long and featuring a 32-piece orchestra and 20-person choir. It’s chaotic, adventurous, and at times, overwhelming. Never a dull moment on this roller coaster ride. It’s unlike anything that’s been released this year (and not just because it’s jazz). (Tracks to check out: Askim, Miss Understanding)
Tier 1: G.O.A.T.
These albums are the total package.
Caspian – Dust and Disquiet
One of my favorite post-rock albums in quite some time. What I like most is how diverse it is. One song might be light, another intense/dark, and another epic. While I’m not a big fan of short interludes, they work to absolute perfection in this album – often providing a soft cushion after an explosive ending to a song. Some post-rock albums suffer from having their songs follow the same formula/sound. Not here… each song has a purpose to it and, taken together, they result in a dynamic album that is engaging from start to finish. (Tracks to check out: Arcs of Command, Darkfield, Dust and Disquiet)
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
After exploring grander musical exploits in recent projects, this album represents a return to simplicity. An economy in instrumentation, which often consists of nothing more than the banjo, guitar, and a piano. It’s raw and direct, which is fitting because more than an art project, this album is a window into his life. Carrie & Lowell is influenced by the death of his estranged mother and in it, he explores faith, loneliness, loss, nostalgia, and finding hope at the end of the day. It’s amazing what this album accomplishes – some of the saddest songs ‘sound’ the happiest, and some of the happiest songs ‘sound’ the saddest. Given my own life experiences, this album was a cathartic experience. (Tracks to check out: Should Have Known Better, Carrie & Lowell, John My Beloved)
D’Angelo – Black Messiah
Even though this came out in 2014, it came out in December, so I’m still counting it for the list. To me, this is a masterpiece of an album. Definitely more varied than his previous works, with a greater infusion of funk, blues, and jazz. The ways in which his vocals are transformed into just one of many instruments in a given song adds a nice touch. The guitar, which he mastered during his decade-plus exile, provides a new backbone to his sound. There are songs of protest, as well as songs of romance, and all are masterfully crafted. I could live with waiting another 10-15 years for his next album, because there’s so much to chew on in this album. (Tracks to check out: the whole damn album)
Just missed the cut
CJ Trillo – Undrafted: His most recent release. A bit darker and more experimental than Nostalgia, but it holds its own. Trillo continues to carve out his sound, but the Kendrick/Cole influences can still be felt. (Track to check out: 2012)
Counterparts – Tragedy Will Find Us: I don’t listen to much (melodic) hardcore these days, but this band is probably all that I need. I don’t have to miss the original Comeback Kid lineup when I’ve got this band to listen to. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the standard for melodic hardcore right now. (Track to check out: Burn)
Dustin Kensrue – Carry The Fire: No one can accuse me of bias since this album didn’t make the cut. In all honesty, I think this is his best solo album yet. With 8 years, 3 worship albums, the Mars Hill debacle, and the Thrice hiatus, there’s a lot of history between “Please Come Home” and this album, which I think shows in the music. There’s definitely a Dustin Kensrue ‘style’ (which is distinct from Thrice), but what I enjoy about this album is how he’s able to show off and embrace different genres/styles. (Track to check out: Gallows)
The Wonder Years – No Closer To Heaven: This album reminds me of mid-2000s Brand New. Probably the best compliment I can give the band. (Track to check out: Cardinals)
Wonder Girls – Reboot: I didn’t think a K-Pop album would be one of my favorite albums this year, yet here we are. Again, I’m a sucker for that 80’s vibe, which this album has in bundles. This group has such a fascinating career arc: enjoyed peak popularity, lost all momentum when they tried to break into the US market, returned to Korea only to tread water for a few years, and now have transformed themselves into a girl group/band hybrid with live performances that combine singing, dancing, AND playing instruments. (Tracks to check out: Baby Don’t Play, I Feel You, Faded Love)
Better Late Than Never: Albums I didn’t discover until 2015
Small O – Temper of Water: Fantastic little folk band from Korea. It’s got really folky folk songs, but it’s also got poppy folk songs too. If I enjoyed hiking/camping, I think this album would go perfectly with that experience. They remind me a good bit of Fleet Foxes. Good stuff, which is unsurprising since they’re from Fluxus. (Check Out “That Will Fall”)
Asoto Union – Sound Renovates A Structure: Who doesn’t love good funk? Absolutely hits the spot. Also, mad respect to the lead singer… who’s also the drummer of the band. (Check Out “Think About ‘Chu”)
CJ Trillo – Volume 1: Nostalgia: I don’t know how I’d describe my taste in rappers, but this cat is probably close. The beats are diverse (chill/jazzy to old school), the lyrics relatable, and his flow solid. I think he makes whiplash music because he’s got me nodding my head hard. Probably my favorite album of his to date. (Check Out “Naughty By Nature”)
The Ocean – Pelagial: The instrumental version is the version that makes this list. The Ocean is a prog-metal band from Germany, and Pelagial is a concept album with each track, in descending order, referencing the layers/depth zones of the ocean. Just as the ocean gets darker and more claustrophobic the deeper you go, so does the music on the album. If you’re a fan of prog/post metal, you’ll love this album. (Check out the entire album here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9L7YSrQmVDw)
Jun Bum Sun & The Yangbans – Love Songs: A Korean indie pop/folk band whose sound harks back to the “emo” (in the good sense) bands of the mid-to-late 90s (e.g. Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral). The vocalist REALLY reminds me of the vocalist from The Get Up Kids as well. Love Songs is a concept album, about a fictional woman named “명월” and the evolution of her relationship with the narrator/singer. If you’re interested, here’s an interview with the frontman (Jun Bum Sun) that’s well worth the read. He explains the name of the band, his interesting background, the album concept, etc. (Check Out “Because You Are”)