Happy New Year, ladies and gentlemen. We’re officially in the first day of 2016, but before we move on to the new year, let’s reminisce on 2015. With police brutality, presidential campaigns, potential for World War III, and issues affecting African Americans, Muslims, and the LGBT community, 2015 has been an insane year to be alive. Like many other music reviewers (myself included) have already said, the year has been good for music. We’ve seen more great albums this year than last year, which is awesome if you’re a music lover. I would usually do another Year End Album Reviews this time of the year, but I decided to do something different. If you’ve read my Updates, then you would already know that I decided to discontinue the Year End Album Reviews for good. In its place will be an annual list series, my 20 Favorite Albums Of The Year. Unlike my other list series, this one won’t be done in any chronological order. Instead, I’ll be talking about the 20 albums that I enjoyed the most that I find myself going back to again and again, some more than others. I feel comfortable giving all of these albums an A or B grade. So let’s get this list started.
Before we get into the good stuff, though, let’s get into the records that I had the unfortunate displeasure of subjecting my ears to. Here’s some of the worst albums that 2015 had to offer.
- Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz-Miley Cyrus
- Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven-Kid Cudi
- Sremmlife-Rae Sremmurd
- Tangled Up-Thomas Rhett
- Wilder Mind-Mumford & Sons
- Barter 6-Young Thug
- Jack Ü-Skrillex & Diplo
- Purpose-Justin Bieber
- What A Time To Be Alive-Drake & Future
- Fetty Wap-Fetty Wap
- Smoke & Mirrors-Imagine Dragons
- Title-Meghan Trainor
Now that we got the crap out the way, let’s get to the list proper.
Release Date: January 20
Best Tracks: Paper Trail$, Big Dusty, On & On, Curry Chicken
If you’re someone who’s up to date with hip-hop, then you’ve heard about Brooklyn emcee Joey Bada$$. The guy has earned a following thanks to his skills as a lyricist and a sound reminiscent of 90s New York boom bap, which is displayed in his mixtapes 1999 and Summer Knights. Admittedly, that sound kinda makes him a throwback artist. A big challenge for Joey is to overcome that stigma and release a full-length project that people can enjoy. And I’d say he accomplished that for the most part with his studio debut B4.DA.$$. This is the quintessential New York hip-hop album of 2015 and one that sounds like New York, especially with the dark dusty 90s boom-bap production that wouldn’t sound out of place 20 years ago. Joey is no slouch lyrically, he can do hard-hitting shit and something introspective. He has more versatility in his rapping than people give him credit for. B4.DA.$$ is mostly treading the same territory, but it’s done so well that I’m willing to forget about that and enjoy the record. This guy has a bright future ahead of him, I know it.
Tetsuo & Youth
Release Date: January 20
Best Tracks: Mural, Blur My Hands, Dots & Lines, Prisoner 1 & 2, Deliver
I’m always glad to see one of my favorite emcees deliver a great project and Lupe Fiasco is no exception. While I personally liked Lasers and Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Part 1 (I’m still pissed about that Part 1 shit because we’ll never get a Part 2; seriously, artists, don’t pull that crap if you’re not gonna follow through with it), they weren’t exactly well received, especially when compared to Food & Liquor and The Cool. After Food & Liquor II, Lupe announced that his next album will be called Tetsuo & Youth. He released a bunch of promotional singles that were pretty mediocre, which made me concerned for the album. But then the album arrived and crushed all of my fears. I fucking love this album. Tetsuo & Youth might be the best thing Lupe has ever made since The Cool. It has some of the best beats out of any Lupe album. Lyrically, Lupe is on another level. The wordplay, metaphors, and the stories he tells in the songs are ridiculous. The 8-minute long second track Mural hits you with everything to expect from the rest of the album, from the use of geometry on Dots & Lines, comparing prison and record labels in Prisoner 1 & 2, and the plights of pizza delivery in the hood on Deliver. This feels like the album Lupe wanted to make since Lasers and those disappointed with that album will be pleased with this one along with everyone else who’s a Lupe Fiasco fan.
I Love You Honeybear
Father John Misty
Release Date: February 10
Best Tracks: I Love You Honeybear, The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment, Strange Encounter, Bored In The USA
I first heard about this record through Mark Grondin’s review of it, so I went to check it out and boy, was I not disappointed. This is a pretty damn good indie folk record with some amazing instrumentation. But the best part of the album is the writing. The entire album is about his relationship with his wife and there’s a lot of humor injected into the lyrics that makes the record an entertaining listen. This is one way to make humorous music right here. Not only are these songs funny, but they’re also good on their own without the humor. Plus, it also doesn’t hurt that there’s some wit and charm in this record that’s lacking in most records. For a more detailed review, check out Mark’s review. All I can say is that if you want something that isn’t 100% serious, then check out I Love You Honeybear.
Marina and the Diamonds
Release Date: March 13
Best Tracks: Happy, I’m A Ruin, Blue, Better Than That
One of the more prominent music trends of 2015 is 80s-style synthpop. There’s been a whole bunch of records with this style, one of them coming from Marina and the Diamonds, which is just one person, Welsh singer-songwriter Marina Diamandis. Froot is her third studio album and I’m glad that I got to listen to this record. The production is all new wave indie pop with some hazy dream pop and electronica and it sounds great. Marina sounds great on all of these songs. There’s some good writing on here as well; half of the record deals with Marina dumping a guy she was in a relationship with, the rest go into different territories. Froot isn’t perfect, but it’s a solid pop record. I would gladly go back and listen to some of the songs on here.
To Pimp A Butterfly
Release Date: March 15
Best Tracks: Wesley’s Theory, King Kunta, These Walls, Alright, How Much A Dollar Cost, The Blacker The Berry, Mortal Man
What can I say about this album that millions of others haven’t already said? It’s the most praised record of the year. There’s several articles deconstructing the meanings behind each song. It’s been talked about to death to the point where I can’t say anything about it that’s already been said. Here we go anyways. So. To Pimp A Butterfly. To say it’s my favorite album of the year is an understatement. This record alone is one of the reasons why I say that 2015 has been good for hip-hop in spite of the crap. Like many people, I was looking forward to seeing what Kendrick Lamar was gonna deliver after good kid, m.A.A.d city. And boy, did he deliver. Musically, the production and beats are stellar, mixing rap, jazz, and funk grooves to make the blackest record of 2015. Do I even need to comment on the rapping? Some of Kendrick’s most potent bars are on this album, dealing with themes of racism and being black in America. This was a record that was needed and had the perfect timing with all of the shit going on right now with racial inequality being a hot topic. There’s also the P-funk masterpiece Wesley’s Theory, which deals with the dangers of the IRS, the smooth neo-soul These Walls, which can refer to either vaginal walls, prison walls, or walls of the mind, the schizophrenic u, which deals wit self-hate and is balanced with the self-love anthem i later in the album, the menacing and powerful The Blacker The Berry, which calls out hypocrisy in both racist white people and black people, and album closer Mortal Man, which includes an interview with Tupac, the most chilling moment of the entire record. I can’t say enough about To Pimp A Butterfly without doing it any actual justice. Just note that it’s the most important piece of music of the year and it will stick around and be fondly remembered for years to come while others won’t. I eagerly anticipate what King Kunta himself has to offer next.
Jekyll + Hyde
Zac Brown Band
Release Date: April 28
Best Tracks: Loving You Easy, Homegrown, Tomorrow Never Comes, Junkyard
As someone who doesn’t listen to country music that often, there are some acts who I consider to be my favorites, one of them being the Zac Brown Band. To me, they’re some of the perfect representations of the genre at its best. Their latest album, Jekyll + Hyde, is them pushing the boundaries of country music and mixing it with different genres of music. It works most of the time like the soulful Loving You Easy, the EDM-flavored Tomorrow Never Comes, and the rocking Junkyard, but others like Beautiful Drug are just a mess. The vocal harmonies on here are excellent and so is Zac Brown himself. The writing is a bit standard, but nothing terrible. Because the songs go into different sounds and genres, there’s no real cohesion to the album. But there’s still a bunch of great songs on here and I enjoyed them. So yeah. This album is worth checking out in my opinion.
Twenty One Pilots
Release Date: May 17
Best Tracks: Stressed Out, Fairly Local, Tear In My Heart, Not Today
Twenty One Pilots were one of the big surprises of the year for me because I wasn’t too ecstatic about their debut Vessel. Their follow-up Blurryface is infinitely a much better record, building off of what made Vessel work and make them better. The instrumentation and production has vastly improved, blurring the lines between rap, indie pop, and reggae. Josh Dun’s drum work is insane, a highlight of the album. Tyler Joseph has improved a lot as a rapper and a singer, with more fluid flows and he sounds more confident than before. Another element that has improved is the songwriting, which dives into insecurities concerning making it in the music industry and making that sophomore album. Talk about an improvement. I hope Twenty One Pilots stick around and make more great music because Blurryface is just awesome.
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
Release Date: May 28
Best Tracks: Slip Slide, Warm Enough, Wanna Be Cool, Sunday Candy
One of the most promising new talents in hip-hop is Chicago emcee Chance The Rapper. His free-form style of blending rapping and singing has won him critical love with his second mixtape Acid Rap. Instead of releasing a debut studio album, he worked with his band The Social Experiment and trumpeter Donnie Trumpet on Surf. The production and instrumentation on here is pretty good, mixing hip-hop with R&B, soul, and jazz fusion. I’m not too crazy about Donnie Trumpet’s horns, some of his contributions were good, others, not so much. A lot of the songs deal with themes of positivity and childlike sincerity, which shines through the writing. Even though this isn’t technically his album, Chance does impress as a vocalist, rapping and singing at the same time with a relaxed flow. Most of the guest features do their thing as well, most notably Busta Rhymes on Slip Slide, J Cole and Noname Gypsy on Warm Enough, and Big Sean and KYLE on Wanna Be Cool. Not every song on Surf works, especially some of the more instrumental ones, but the ones that do work are exceptionally great. Definitely an album worth checking out.
Release Date: May 29
Best Tracks: Sleep Sound, SeeSaw, Strangers In A Room, Loud Places
In terms of electronic music in 2015, Jamie xx might have released the best album of the entire year with In Colour. Unlike the more overblown EDM acts in the mainstream, Jamie xx is more subtle and restraint, which is evident by the production on this album. A mix of house and UK garage, there’s a lot of textures in the melodies and rhythms that never gets tiring and are amazing to listen to. There’s also some good writing on here on songs Strangers In A Room and Loud Places, both about hooking up. Nearly off of the featured artists do their own thing, but there was one that I wasn’t too fond of and of course, it’s Young Thug on I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times), who’s terrible as usual. Outside of that, this is a pretty damn good electronic album. Check it out.
Beneath The Skin
Of Monsters And Men
Release Date: June 9
Best Tracks: Crystals, Human, Thousand Eyes, We Sink
I really enjoy the music of Of Monsters And Men. They’re one of my favorite indie folk bands out there and I like My Head Is An Animal, their debut album. With good poetic writing and some awesome instrumentation, they found a way to be on my playlist. Their newest album Beneath The Skin is no different. While it isn’t as strong as My Head Is An Animal, it works well for me. The production and instrumentation are the same as the last album, more folky guitars, driving drums, and strings and horns that compliments the melodies. The harmonies sound amazing, though Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir easily blows Ragnar Þórhallsson out the water easily. My only nitpick with this album is that the writing isn’t as strong as before. It’s not bad or anything, but it could’ve been better, but like I said, it’s just a nitpick. Doesn’t take away my enjoyment of Beneath The Skin, though, so that’s a big plus.
Release Date: June 23
Best Tracks: Dime Store Cowgirl, Pageant Material, This Town, Die Fun, Somebody To Love
Kacey Musgraves is the critical darling of the country world, winning acclaim for her debut Same Trailer Different Park, an album I enjoyed listening to. Like many people, I wished that she would see more commercial success, especially when you see the top “country” artists now. Flash forward to now and we get a new album from Kacey, Pageant Material. Let me just say this: best country album of 2015. I love this record. The instrumentation is simple, more traditional country in the guitars, banjos, and strings. Kacey sounds great on here and she’s backed up by great writing, which is more of the same from the last album and is a love letter to classic country. A great country album that’s needed in these times. Let’s hope that country music improves more in 2016.
Release Date: June 29
Best Tracks: Coffee, N.W.A., waves, leaves
I’ve previously said a long time ago that modern R&B is split into three categories; mainstream, traditional/soul, and alternative/indie. Miguel falls into the latter category. I didn’t care much for him when he released his debut album All I Want Is You, though I liked Sure Thing. Kaleidoscope Dream is what sold me to him. Dude is the closest to Prince that we have in this generation with some raunchy and actually sexy songs. So I was definitely looking forward to Wildheart, whose production and instrumentation sounds like a combination of Prince and Jimi Hendrix with its psychedelic rock influences. A lot of the rock-oriented songs rock harder than most rock songs in 2015. The writing is solid for the most part, dealing with sex, romance, and being human in general. Miguel sells it with his singing, which is amazing as usual. One of the best R&B albums of the year hands down.
Release Date: June 30
Best Tracks: Lift Me Up, Lemme Know, Jump Off The Roof, Get Paid, Might Be Wrong
This has been a good year for rappers from California. We got solid records from Kendrick, Jay Rock, Dr. Dre, The Game, and upcoming Long Beach rapper Vince Staples. Best known for his appearance on Common’s Kingdom and his Hell Can Wait EP, Vince was the new kid on the block poised to be the new face of the next generation of hip-hop. His debut album Summertime ’06 had to be a dope project, especially since most of the production was done by No ID. Good thing it delivers what I was hoping because this is an excellent album. It’s actually a double album consisting of twenty tracks (ten on each CD) and because of that, it can drag. But outside of that, plus a few tracks, that’s my only nitpick. We get some pretty good production on here, which is to be expected since No ID is involved. The entire album tells the story of a younger Vince Staples growing up in Long Beach back in summer of 2006, hence the title. Vince Staples has always been a pretty good rapper and Summertime ’06 showcases that with descriptions of growing up in an impoverished neighborhood. The guest features were okay for the most part, though nothing that great. I feel like this record is more of an introduction to what Vince Staples can offer and I can see him improving. His best work is way ahead of him and I’m looking forward to that.
Twelve Reasons To Die II
Release Date: July 10
Best Tracks: Return Of The Savage, King Of New York, Get The Money, Death’s Invitation
Everyone has their favorite Wu Tang member. For me, it’s Ghostface Killah. Dude is one of the illest lyricists to have ever lived. His wordplay, similes, and metaphors are so insane, it makes you go, “what the fuck did he just say,” and then rewind the track. Plus, he has the ability to tell intricate stories with his lyrics, as proven by his 2013 album Twelve Reasons To Die. Two years later, he released a sequel to that album Twelve Reasons To Die II and he accomplished something that most artists fail to do, make a good sequel album that actually continues the story. The story of Twelve Reasons To Die is that Tony Starks is a enforcer of the DeLuca mob family in 1960s Italy who broke out on how own and was dating the Don’s daughter. He’s then killed by his former employers and his body is turned into twelve vinyl records that, when played, revives him as the Ghosface Killah, who wants revenge for his death. This story was told brilliantly in the first TRTD. The sequel continues the story in 1970s New York involving descendants of the DeLuca family and a crime syndicate ran by Lester Kane (played by Raekwon). Twelve Reasons To Die II is the Godfather II of albums. The production provided by Adrian Younge fits perfectly with the narrative. It’s soulful, grimy, New York boom-bap at its dustiest. Ghostface does what Ghostface does best, be a top-level emcee. His lyrics paint detailed pictures of the story and keeps you invested and enertain. The guest features all do their thing and help add to the story, especially Raekwon. We also get some great contributions from Vince Staples and Chino XL. This album actually feels like a movie in audio form, which is what many rappers fail to do when they claim their album is “cinematic.” This is how you do it, people. If Ghostface and Adrian Younge decided to do a Twelve Reasons To Die III, then I’ll definitely check it out.
Release Date: August 7
Best Tracks: Genocide, All In A Day’s Work, One Shot One Kill, Animals, Medicine Man, Talking To My Diary
It’s been 16 years since Dr. Dre released 2001. During that time, Dre promised a new album called Detox, which was delayed constantly to the point where people gave up on it and it became a joke because it seems he’s never gonna release the album. Flash forward to 2015 and Dre announces that Detox has been scrapped and that he was gonna release a new album called Compton instead. Initial reactions were rightfully skeptical because of Detox. But it was legit and the album was released to the public and I think it was for the better because this album is fantastic. Dre still has it after all of these years. The beats and production are on another level. The sound is cinematic and hard-hitting, it’s a fitting evolution for Dre, who’s more of a composer than a producer. The drums are thumping, the keys are lush, the guitars are spastic, and we also get some awesome horn solos. The mixing is superb on nearly every track. Dre still has that hunger that several rappers lack as he spends most of the album reminiscing on his life and 30 year career, from N.W.A. to the Chronic and 2001 to putting on some big names, all encompassed in the final track Talking To My Diary. Compton is an album of self-reflection. And of course, Dre got a bunch of talented people featured on this album and they all kill it. From Snoop Dogg’s best performance in years with his verse on One Shot One Kill, Xzibit and Cold 187um adding to the insanity and tenseness of Loose Cannons, Ice Cube on Issues, The Game on Another Day, and of course, Eminem killing it on Medicine Man and Kendrick Lamar slaughtering every track he’s on. And of course, Dre also put on some new talent like King Mez and Anderson Paak, who is easily the highlight of the entire album, featured on 6 tracks. This was said to be Dre’s last album. If that’s true, this is one hell of a way to go out. Salute to the Doc.
Beauty Behind The Madness
Release Date: August 28
Best Tracks: Real Life, Losers, The Hills, Can’t Feel My Face, In The Night
It’s crazy to see how far The Weeknd has come to achieve success. The alternative R&B artist started gaining buzz in 2011 with his collaborations with Drake and his three mixtapes House Of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes Of Silence (which were all combined into one compilation album Trilogy a year later). After that, he released his debut studio album Kiss Land to okay reception. Then he started seeing some commercial success being featured on Ariana Grande’s Love Me Harder and doing Earned It for the Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack. The Weeknd’s previous albums were mostly dark and gloomy alternative R&B. With Beauty Behind The Madness, he aims more for the pop atmosphere of Michael Jackson, resulting in a solid piece of work. The production is more cleaner and less bleak than the previous albums. All of the songs deal with themes of indulgence and excess of drugs, sex, and fame. Only a few songs don’t work, but the majority of them do. There’s also some solid contributions from Ed Sheeran, Labrinth, and surprisingly for me, Lana Del Rey. Definitely one of the best R&B albums that the mainstream has provided and considering how mediocre the R&B genre has gotten, that’s saying something.
Release Date: September 11
Best Tracks: Easy Bake, Gumbo, Vice City, Money Trees Deuce
When you’re signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, one of your label mates is Kendrick Lamar, who’s one of the big names in modern rap and has released two of the most universally acclaimed records of our time. It becomes a challenge for you because you have to follow that up. It was tough for ScHoolboy Q, whose Oxymoron album was good, but hasn’t aged well and is vastly inferior to good kid, m.A.A.d city. So imagine being Jay Rock, who’s one of the lesser-known members of TDE who’s best known for his appearance on the GKMC album cut Money Trees and now has to follow up To Pimp A Butterfly with his own album. While 90059 isn’t as great as that album, it’s still a solid release. Yeah, it’s your typical gangster rap album album, but it’s a well-done gangster rap album and has more insight than most. The beats and production on this album go hard. Some of it does have the trap sound, especially in the drums and percussion, but it’s still West Coast. Jay Rock as an emcee kills it and he use many different variety of flows. He shows why I consider him to be the second best rapper signed to TDE after you-know-who. He also featured his fellow labelmates on the album, a highlight being Black Hippy on Vice City. Chalk this up to another great record from Top Dawg Entertainment.
Every Open Eye
Release Date: September 25
Best Tracks: Leave A Trace, Make Them Gold, High Enough To Carry You Over, Down Side Of Me
It’s ridiculous how much I enjoy CHVRCHES’ music. This Scottish trio contributes to the world some awesome 80s-sounding synthpop and in terms of that sound, they deliver one of the best albums of the year with Every Open Eye. This is one of those albums that I find myself going back to listen to again and again. I love how the production sounds with those tight melodies, synths, and drums. A marked improvement over The Bones Of What You Believe, this is synthpop at its best. And of course, there’s Lauren Mayberry, whose childlike voice fits the production and isn’t too sugary. She sounds amazing on these songs. And there’s also some good writing. CHVRCHES can write relationship/break up songs that aren’t one-sided, that they both are flawed. This is especially true with both Leave A Trace and High Enough To Carry You Over where we get both perspectives on the matter (with Martin Doherty taking up vocals on the latter song). The album does sound like the previous, but it takes what made that album good and improve it. I’ve listened to this album a thousand times, I’ll listen to it a thousand times more. I love it that much.
Release Date: November 20
Best Tracks: Hello, When We Were Young, Water Under The Bridge, Million Years Ago
There really isn’t much to say about Adele that hasn’t been said. She’s an amazing singer and she’s the most successful artist of the decade so far. 21 is probably one of the best albums of the 2010s so far and to follow that up would be a challenge, but miraculously, Adele accomplished that with 25. While I don’t know if I can say it’s better than 21, it’s still a damn good album. The instrumentation and production are pretty great, with the pianos, swelling organs, and some synths added in because why not. The writing shows a much more mature Adele moving on from past relationships and reminiscing about those times. As for her singing? Do I really need to say anything about her goldly singing? It speaks for itself. We’ve waited four years for this album and it was worth every penny. I honestly hope that Adele doesn’t make another album after this because I don’t see her topping this and it’d be cool for her to go out on top.
King Push-Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude
Release Date: December 18
Best Tracks: Untouchable, M.P.A., Keep Dealing, Retribution, Sunshine
Pusha T and his brother Malice make up Clipse, one of the illest hip-hop duos of the 2000s with two classics under their belt, Lord Willin’ and Hell Hath No Fury (seriously, if you’re new to hip-hop, check out those albums immediately). The brothers then went solo to do their own thing, with Pusha signing to GOOD Music and releasing his solo debut My Name Is My Name. While I initially liked the album (and still do) it wasn’t perfect. The number of features, plus, some questionable song choices, brought it down for me. So Pusha T is working on a new album titled King Push that will be released in spring of 2016, but before that, he released a 10 track prelude album King Push-Darkest Before Dawn. While it is frustrating that we never got King Push itself immediately, this is a good substitute to hold us over until the album itself. We get more detailed, intricate coke raps alongside some criticisms of the rap industry and it’s anchored by Pusha’s bars, which are A1 and are complimented by some fire production. Timbaland contributed to two of the best songs on the album, the Biggie-sampling Unotuchable and Retribution. If King Push itself isn’t as good as or better than this album, that would be one of the biggest disappointments of 2016.
So those were my 20 favorite albums of 2015. I eagerly can’t wait to see what 2016 has to offer. Here are some other albums that I think are worth checking out.
- Astoria-Marianas Trench
- The Documentary 2/The Documentary 2.5-The Game
- Mr. Wonderful-Action Bronson
- Currents-Tame Impala
- Love Story-Yelawolf
- Mr. Understood-Eric Church
- At.Long.Last.A$AP-A$AP Rocky
- The Incredible True Story-Logic
- American Beauty/American Psycho-Fall Out Boy
- Born In The Echoes-Chemical Brothers
- Depression Cherry/Thank Your Lucky Stars-Beach House
- Evermore: The Art Of Duality-The Underachievers
- Traveller-Chris Stapleton
- Another Eternity-Purity Ring
- Deeply Rooted-Scarface
- The Ecology-Fashawn
- Sound & Color-Alabama Shakes
Next week, a Musical Appreciation on Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life.
SONGS OF THE WEEK
Cutie Pie-One Way
Man In The Middle-Bee Gees