15 Albums of 2015
So much for publishing this over the Christmas break, but for those who are still interested in some fantastic albums of 2015, I'm hoping to cash in on the phrase, "better late than never". As I mentioned on my list of 15 songs of 2015, this has been a particularly good year for new music. Usually I'm able to fit just about every album that I have loved in a year into a list of 12-14, but this year 15 does not feel like enough. No matter what I do, I will need to leave off an album that shaped my year in some way. Sorry in advance if I miss your favourite album of the year in this list, but you can likely assume I agonized over including it.
(15) All We Need - Raury
I love a whole lot about this debut from Raury, but maybe most of all I love the fusion of genres. All We Need is part folk, part hip hop, and part poetry, and manages to never sound scattered. If anything, I'd say it feels comfortable in its own skin. Dare I call it hippy-hop? No, I don't think I will. At times Raury does come across as a bit idealistic, but then I remind myself that this guy is 19 years old, and I relax into the music. My highlights are the Big K.R.I.T. assisted "Forbidden Knowledge," "Woodcrest Manor II," and "Mama".
(14) How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful - Florence and the Machine
I would still consider Ceremonials to be Florence and the Machine's strongest album, but one thing I love about their 2015 release is their band consistency. The group does what they do best - dark and broody verses matched with loud, belted, catchy hooks; a concept album that plays with related themes (this time often biblical heartache and marine imagery), yet doesn't go overboard; and of course an ethereal quality somehow pulled off with huge volume and instrumentation. Highlights include "What Kind of Man," "Delilah," and "St. Jude".
(13) Unbreakable - Janet Jackson
We've been waiting 8 long years for Unbreakable, and although it's not my album of the year, it's full of diverse R&B for any occasion. My favourites are the opening three songs: "Unbreakable," "BURNITUP!" and "Dammn Baby" back to back. The album sales have been brilliantly packaged into bundles with merchandise or concert tickets, which I think we'll end up seeing a lot more of in the future. I bought my copy of this album with a tour T-shirt. But you can just buy it on iTunes, the old-fashioned way. In case you missed it, here's the video for the first single, "No Sl333p," featuring J. Cole.
(12) Every Open Eye - Chvrches
Yes, "Leave a Trace" is the big song of this album, but the entire thing manages to keep a high energy without tiring out or boring the listener. I can't decide if Lauren Mayberry's voice has matured slightly, or if I've just gotten used to it, but I never listened to their first album, The Bones of What You Believe, nearly as much as I've played Every Open Eye.
(11) Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit - Courtney Barnett
I was skeptical of all the chatter around new Australian artist, Courtney Barnett, and her debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. Listening to a single on its own didn't hook me, but when I finally decided to give the whole thing a spin I was pleasantly surprised. Comparisons to Dylan's lyrics have been ripe, but the first thing my wife and I noticed was how her voice sounds like Sheryl Crow. Sometimes I think this album sounds like a lost record of 1996, but nobody in the 90s was writing music this good about things like buying organic vegetables or the price of housing. Seriously, she can make a decent tune out of any random subject matter - she's like the Sydney Bristow of blues-rock.
(10) Vieux Loop - The Acorn
Five years since their last album, and eight years since I became a fan, Ottawa's The Acorn has released a short but sweet, folky album named after an old wolf. Ever since hearing this among the Polaris Prize nominations list, it's been a go-to record for chill activities like tea-drinking and writing. Highlights include "Cumin," and "Domination".
(9) Ratchet - Shamir
Genderqueer 21 year-old Shamir from Las Vegas, Nevada is one of my favourite new artists in a long time. Shamir makes fun, innovative music, making use of various sounds both electronic and acoustic, and performs it with a beautiful counter-tenor voice that reads neither as masculine or feminine, reminiscent of Prince or Annie Lennox. Don't pass up the opportunity to get to know Shamir's quirky style through a music video. Here's "Call It Off":
(8) You Should Be Here - Kehlani
I will never forget my first night in NYC this past October, getting ready to go out, and a friend putting this album on. Until that moment, I thought that Kehlani had only released her EP, Cloud 19, so as soon as I recognized the voice I was excited to give this a closer listen. Among so many up-and-coming R&B voices, this one is a little more uniquely hip-hop; smooth but with a distinct edge. From the intro to the final track, this album feels cohesive and ready to play any time of day, as long as you're okay with a parental advisory warning.
(7) Epic - Kamasi Washington
Epic may be the most appropriately titled album of the year, with no less than 3 hours of heavily Coltrane-influenced saxophone. Kamasi has been making a name for himself via collaborations with Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, but I doubt even he expected to his debut jazz LP to be as well-received as this has been. With his 10-piece band, this sounds reminiscent of post-bop jazz, while also forging a new kind of fusion that just might provide a way forward for jazz saxophone. If you feel overwhelmed by a triple-disc record, give "Re-Run" or "Change the Guard" a try for a taste of Kamasi Washington.
(6) Coming Home - Leon Bridges
The comparisons to Sam Cooke have been most rich, and indeed this album sounds like a lost record of the 60's, when gospel first became pop. The production is soft, echoey and reminiscent of the golden Motown era, while 25-year-old Bridges' voice is like salted caramel - smooth with a bit of crunch, and ever so delicious. If I had to pick some favourite moments, they'd be on "Brown Skin Girl" and "River". But it's best heard all together, and this is number one on my vinyl-to-purchase list.
(5) Sound & Color - The Alabama Shakes
From the first track on The Alabama Shakes' second album, it's clear that this is a departure from their debut, Boys and Girls. Vibes open the album, introducing us to more diverse instrumentation and more softly subtle sound. Brittany Howard also released some music with her punk band as Thunderbitch, and I can't help but wonder if that outlet freed The Shakes up to explore some quieter dynamics here. Brittany's contagious energy as she sings simple and honest lyrics, combined with super catchy blues riffs, provides plenty of consistency for old and new fans alike to be all about Sound & Color.
(4) Surf - Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
It was an emotional rollercoaster when Surf was released for free on iTunes. First, elation. Second, disappointment when its availability was only on American iTunes. Third, I went into problem solving mode, attempting to find someone who would buy it south of the border and dropbox it to me. About a week later I finally found a downloadable copy here (and you should too), and proceeded to download and listen to these collaborative tracks on repeat for another week or two. It's not what I expected. Chance the Rapper has continued to evolve and explore, bringing passion and humour to every conversation, and you can tell how much these musicians respect and enjoy one another. If nothing else, give "Sunday Candy" and "Wanna Be Cool" a listen.
(3) Ibeyi - Ibeyi
Ibeyi is the Yoruban word for "twins", an appropriate band name for French-Cuban twin sisters, Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Diaz. Soon after being mesmerized by the video for "River", a friend sent me their interview with Shad on the Q. I think I knew then that their album would be somewhere on this list. This is proper folk music, made by people tied to land and language, culture and place. It's minimalist, relying on sparse rhythms and rich harmonies for a simultaneously haunting and comforting sound.
(2) Carrie & Lowell - Sufjan Stevens
I am not a Sufjan purist. What I mean by this is I have not been sitting around hoping he would return to the folky style of Illinoise or Michigan. I loved Age of Adz, and am a firm believer in artists losing some fanbase in order to explore new soundscapes. What impresses me about Carrie & Lowell is not the way it seems like a return, but the way Sufjan makes such a dive from his head to his heart. We are so used to never speaking ill of the dead that when Sufjan sings honestly about his mother and her imperfections, we know there is something especially vulnerable and beautiful and human going on. This album feels nothing short of sacred, and requires energy to engage it properly. But I promise it's worth it.
(1) To Pimp A Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar
If you have had more than one conversation with me this year, you will likely not be surprised by my number one pick. To Pimp A Butterfly was my most anticipated album in a very long time and it did not disappoint. What can I even say in a paragraph? Kendrick Lamar wrestles through massive themes of race and celebrity, love and hate, family and success, while reuniting funk with rap to tell another beautifully crafted story woven together through a spoken-word poem. If Good Kid M.A.D. City was a Compton album, TPAB is an American album, rising up and peeling back layers of systemic racism and oppression on grander and larger scales than ever before. Yet the constant self-awareness and reflection never lets it be reduced simply to a protest album. Plus, on top of being arguably the best rap lyricist right now, Kendrick uses his masterpiece to showcase other phenomenal musicians, whether legendary, like George Clinton, or fresh faces like Thundercat, Rapsody and Kamasi Washington (to name a few). This is without hesitation my album of 2015, and is providing some serious competition with Beyoncé and Frank Ocean for my album of the decade so far. And with that sweeping statement, let's jam out to "King Kunta", shall we?
I feel like I ought to mention couple of hot contenders that at some point were on this list. If you want even more suggestions, check out Miguel's Wildheart, Jamie XX's In Colour and The Weeknd's Beauty Behind the Madness. If these albums were released nearly any other year, I'm quite sure they would have been included, but the fact they are not on my list just goes to show what a strong year 2015 was. And now for 2016 - peace!