Many will look back on this past year and think of only Adele’s earth-shattering album sales. But to be honest, 2015 was an incredibly kind year in the world of music. A wealth of riches everywhere you turned; Drawing up this list was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. You could make a case for just about every album’s inclusion.
There were so many albums released this year that were just that: Complete works rather than a few singles with some B-sides thrown in for good measure. In a marketplace where radio-ready defines success, that’s incredibly rare, and even more important.
But enough talk, let’s get into it.
10. Revival– Selena Gomez
At the risk of sounding corny, Revival is truly the rebirth of Selena Gomez. Though she has a commendable list of hits to her name, she never evolved beyond being a ‘single’s artist.’ Stars Dance was a collection of songs that failed to showcase her artistry; The album was literally a bunch of songs that had been offered to Rihanna before landing on Gomez’s lap, and it showed.
But as lead single “Good For You” showcased, Gomez finally seemed to find her niche within the world of pop, trading eccentricities for pure mood. Far from being the vocalist of her generation, she instead released a collection of songs with stickier hooks (try and get “Same Old Love” out of your head, I dare you) and even cooler melodies; The production is extremely intricate, and subtle. Revival may play like a collection of greatest hits, but that’s only because every song is essential listening. There’s not a weak song on the track list. Even the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition are just as good as the ones on the standard issue.
“I mean I could but why would I want to?” Gomez purrs on standout “Hands To Myself,” sending chills down your spine in the process. Welcome to the table Selena Gomez, we’re ready to take you seriously as an artist.
***Essential Tracks: “Hands To Myself,” “Same Old Love,” “Sober,” “Good For You,” “Me & My Girls”***
9. Every Open Eye– CHVRCHES
When Lauren Mayberry sings, “We will take the best parts of us and make them gold,” it’s more of a mission statement rather than throwaway lyrics. Somehow, CHVRCHES took what made their assured debut album, The Bones of What You Believe such a delight, and improved upon it. The group’s already masterful understanding of booming synths and monstrous hooks is taken to the next level.
That’s probably best encapsulated within “Leave A Trace,” which was destined for lead single status. It’s the band’s zippiest, radio ready effort yet; It’s an infectious kiss off that many will find impossible to shake from their ears once its heard. It’s the kind of song that’s easy to imagine being performed in a stadium filled with adoring fans.
The album is full of sugar rushes of synth that are sure to keep you on a high, only for the group to bring you back down with the closer, “Afterglow.” Perfectly positioned at the end of the album, “Afterglow” is the album’s most stunning moment. “I’ll find my own way back,” Mayberry sings over a subtle synth that sounds like it could score an entire film scene. “Clearest Blue” is a love letter to Depche Mode, the group’s clear inspiration. But Mayberry’s ethereal vocals matched perfectly with the synth raddled hooks assure that CHVRCHES is destined for greatness in their own right.
***Essential Tracks: “Leave A Trace,” “Keep You On My Side,” “Clearest Blue,” “High Enough to Carry You Over,” “Playing Dead,” “Bury It,” “Afterglow”***
8. Depression Cherry– Beach House
The first, and better, of the two releases by Beach House this year, Depression Cherry might just be their best album yet. And that’s saying something, because their previous albums have been flat out amazing. It’s incredibly hard to critique a Beach House album, because they’re always perfect. Their music is always an experience, one that must be listened to as a whole rather than in sections. There are no singles; Their albums are beautifully sketched portraits, not snapshots.
With Depression Cherry, the group explores the sadness of pleasure. The sheer theatricality of the album would be enough to warrant it a spot on this list; the organ at the end of “Levitation,” (the album’s opener) is absolutely heavenly, but sounds like something straight out of a movie score in all of the right ways. They are truly the pioneers of the dream pop genre, and that’s really the best way to define the sound of the album. It’s like something straight out of the most pleasant dream you’ve ever had. Completely abstract, but undeniably beautiful.
***Essential Tracks: “Sparks,” “Space Song,” “10:37,” “PPP,” “Wildflower”
7. Wildheart– Miguel
“Too proper for the black kids/ Too black for the Mexicans/ Too square to be hood.” The lyric from “what’s normal anyway,” may refer to Miguel’s loneliness stemming from his biracial heritage, but it addresses a much larger theme for the R&B singer: identity.
After a label change, he released the critically acclaimed Kaleidoscope Dream, which had critics comparing him to the likes of Prince and Marvin Gaye. “#Beautiful”, the collaboration with Mariah Carey, gave the singer more chart success and exposure. But it’s his latest release, Wildheart, that will really solidify him as one of the greats. Just from listening to the album in its entirety, it’s clear that Miguel is someone that truly understands R&B. Every song sounds undeniably like his own. Rather than following a particular trend, he stays true to himself, and even throws in unexpected twists and turns in the form of electric guitars and a Lenny Kravitz collaboration.
And that’s really the greatest part of the album: its production. Not to knock the expert songwriting or vocal performance, but the cohesive instrumentals make for a sensual listening experience, one as enjoyable as the album’s theme of carnal pleasures. This is yet another album that is light on radio friendly music. But Miguel sounds less concerned with lighting up the radios and more concerned with delivering upon his early promise.
***Essential Tracks: “Hollywood Dreams,” “leaves,” “face the sun,” “Simple Things”***
6. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful– Florence + the Machine
3 years was a long while to wait for a new Florence + the Machine album. Almost too long. Their previous release, Ceremonials, was an epic, grandiose step forward for the band. Though front woman Florence Welch’s almost unreal voice was front and center complete with thundering instrumentals, it was missing something that their debut, the scrappy breakthrough Lungs, possessed.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is the most stripped down the group has ever sounded. Here, they allow Florence’s voice to do the heavy lifting. Even on the grander tracks like “What Kind of Man”, “Third Eye“ and the album’s title track, it’s Welch’s incredible vocal prowess that serves as the album’s main instrument. She’s hinted at subtlety before, but songs like “Never Let Me Go“ still retained the group’s signature instrumental epicness. Here, the quiet moments (the standout “St. Jude“) really pack a punch without hitting you over the head with booming production.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is easily the group’s best offering, because it’s where Welch shines the brightest. She can still convey emotional power without relying on all the overwhelming bells and whistles.
***Essential Tracks: “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” “Queen of Peace,” “Various Storms & Saints,” “Caught,” “Third Eye,” “St. Jude”***
5. FROOT– Marina and The Diamonds
Is Marina Diamandis pop’s most underrated player? After her primed “breakthrough”, electro-pop concept album Electra Heart didn’t live up to the high expectations set by her label’s promotional campaign and the team behind it (Katy Perry and Rihanna hit makers Dr. Luke and Stargate), it was clear the singer/songwriter needed to go back to the drawing board. The result is Diamandis’ best, most cohesive work to date. FROOT possesses the witty lyricism of her debut, The Family Jewels, the catchy production of its follow-up, and execution to establish it as a step forward.
Written and produced by Diamandis herself instead of the team she had behind “Electra Heart”, this album is proof that less is definitely more. Sure, there are big ideas and themes concerning humanity (“Savages”), but nothing about this album is too wanting, or works too hard to demand your attention. On the contrary, it’s a very understated project. The opener, “Happy,” is raw ballad featuring nothing but Diamandis’ operatic vocal range and a piano. Where Electra Heart saw her inhabiting female archetypes as part of a concept. FROOT is solely Marina’s story; for the first time, Diamandis seems confident in her own shoes.
In an industry overcrowded with colorful, kooky wannabe acts, Diamandis has stopped trying to inhabit characters. Instead, she steps back and found the voice the sets her apart from the rest of the crowd: her own, and boy is it beautiful.
***Essential Tracks: “Happy,” “Froot,” “I’m A Ruin,” “Blue,” “Gold,” “Can’t Pin Me Down,” “Solitaire”***
4. Currents– Tame Impala
Currents was perhaps the most clever, and appropriate title for this album. The shifting, rippling production coexists perfectly with the ever changing feelings Kevin Parker is depicting throughout the album’s duration. The 7 minute long opener, “Let It Happen,” sounds mostly like the song stuck on a repeated loop in the best way. Slinking synth, and an ingeniously placed guitar define the course of his sound; This is unlike anything he’s done before, and one of the most memorable albums of the year.
Again, Currents is all about changes, whether in the album’s sound or structure, but at its core is a breakup album. That’s where the emotional power comes from; Parker shows an unwillingness in exposing how relationships lay our flaws out bare for the other to see.
It’s easy to hear the influences drawn from Daft Punk, Michael Jackson and even Prince over the course of the album, but this undeniably an original piece of art. The songs fade into one another, with several interludes placed ingeniously between them (And they’re amazing, making me wish they were longer). Though the melodies and hooks are catchy, this is an album that’s all about conveying emotions through sound. Not a skippable moment here whatsoever. Rather, take it all in and let Currents wash over you, taking you someplace truly out of this world.
***Essential Tracks: “Let It Happen,” “The Moment,” “The Less I know The Better,” “Disciples,” “Cause I’m A Man”***
3. E•MO•TION– Carly Rae Jepson
It was only about 3 years ago that Canadian import Carly Rae Jepson declared pop music supremacy with “Call Me Maybe.” The song skyrocketed to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has since sold 18 million copies, the most by a female artist in this century, but has found Jepson trying to escape its success ever since.
Enter E•MO•TION, Jepson’s magnum opus. An astounding 250 songs were recorded for the project, with a dream team of collaborators like Sia, Dev Hynes, Greg Kurstin, Ariel Rechtshaid and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmangliji. 12 songs made it onto the standard edition, while 15 made it to the deluxe. All of the songs are flat out incredible, and unlike anything you thought Jepson was capable of.
Her talents as a writer are front and center here; She has a knack for making feelings and phrases into vivid pictures that are full of life and impossible to shake from your memory. There’s booming saxophones, flirty hooks and synths with Phil Collins-esque drums; This is every bit a love letter to 80s pop music as it is a declaration of Jepson’s talent. The album has many standout moments, “Warm Blood” and “All That” among them, but it’s “Run Away With Me,” the album’s opener, that is an instant classic. “Baby! Take me! To the! Feeling!/I’ll be your sinner in secret!/When the lights go out/Run away with me” Jepson pleads. The way it captures the heat of the moment while simultaneously drawing from the past makes it absolutely timeless. It’s a shame the song didn’t take over the radios this past summer in the same way Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” did during its year, a song it’s very similar to (and better than, in my humble opinion).
The sheer accomplishment makes the album’s disappointing commercial performance all the more upsetting. How did the artist with one of the biggest songs in recent memory present us with a collection of songs that are more polished and go unnoticed? I’ll never understand; The album deserves so much more than the cult following its garnered since its release. Nevertheless, Jepson can breathe a sigh of relief. While she may not have revisited the top of the Billboard Hot 100, she did step out as a true artist. I’m very much looking forward to what she does next.
***Essential Tracks: “Run Away With Me,” “All That,” “Let’s Get Lost,” “Your Type,” “Warm Blood,” “When I Needed You,” “I Didn’t Just Come Here To Dance”***
2. To Pimp A Butterfly– Kendrick Lamar
What is there to say about Kendrick Lamar’s incredible follow up to the equally incredible Good Kid, M.A.A.D City that hasn’t already been said? Already heralded as one of the best new rappers by critics and listeners alike, where else was there to go but up? Lamar delivers on every single promise made on previous work, while managing to innovate his sound at the same time.
Influenced by spoken word poetry, funk and jazz, Lamar and his team of producers (just about everyone from Pharrell to Dr. Dre) have constructed yet another masterpiece that is no less as thought provoking or as listenable as his other albums. It’s a culturally significant album. Over its duration, Lamar reconciles with the struggles of being a black man in America, touching upon the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and being a famous celebrity and an artist. He delivers his lyrics with a mastery of someone more than two albums into their career without forgoing the unapologetic, fiery emotion that comes with youth.
What sets this album apart from the others is not only its grand scope, but just how cinematic it feels. Not just because it’s not as appealing to Top 40 radio (seriously, WHY was “King Kunta” not a huge hit?!) doesn’t make it any less listenable. On the contrary, Lamar’s shift from ear-grabbing hooks to thought provoking lyricism and imagery are actually more effective. It’s not just an album one would enjoy listening to, it’s an album you, and everyone else should be listening to. With the marketplace being flooded with pretenders from the likes of Iggy Azalea, Macklemore and Eminem, it’s refreshing to actually hear the voice of a genuine rap artist bringing the importance or rap music back. He’s not concerned with lighting up the radios with sticky hooks or memorable choruses (though there are plenty of those here).
This is his masterpiece, in a discography filled compelling, masterfully crafted work, and he’s only just getting started. Lamar is an artist who keeps reaching new creative heights with each of his releases. Where mainstream rap is leaning more towards the landscape of pop these days, Lamar shifts the conversation back to the music, and the socio-political ideas that created rap in the first place.
***Essential Tracks: “King Kunta,” “These Walls,” “Alright,” “How Much a Dollar Cost,” “The Blacker The Berry,” “i”***
1. Art Angels– Grimes
Art Angels is not just the album of the year, but one of the most stunning pop records ever released. It’s a complete departure from Claire Boucher’s (otherwise known as Grimes) critically acclaimed album Visions and every trend being exhausted by Top 40 radio. With Art Angels Grimes makes pop music exciting, and unpredictable again. From the album’s orchestral intro, “Laughing and Not Being Normal” to its melancholic, but hopeful, conclusion “Butterfly” Boucher has presented us with her most cohesive collection of songs thus far. There’s the club ready bangers “Venus Fly” featuring the always incredible Janelle Monáe and “Kill V. Maim” which sounds like it could be chanted from the seats of a stadium. “California,” “REALiTi” and “Flesh without Blood” are the album’s poppiest cuts, with the latter having one of the most memorable guitar riffs since Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” No matter what genre Boucher is experimenting with though, her ethereal vocals float from song to song with ease; She’s a pro.
Anyone shocked that Grimes has “gone pop” shouldn’t really call themselves a huge Grimes fan. After all, this was the same artist whose Boiler Room DJ set included “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” “1 Thing” with some Nicki Minaj thrown in for good measure. That being said, this album is unlike anything you’ve ever heard. No one is doing what Boucher does on Art Angels. Produced, mixed and written entirely by Boucher herself, it sounds destined for Top 40 domination without sounding like anything else on the radio. Many heralded Taylor Swift for her highly publicized “risk” of making 1989 her first “official” pop album, but the risks Grimes takes here are not only bigger and riskier, but more satisfying. I can’t skip around with this album, it demands to be listened to from start to finish. I have a new favorite with almost every listen, which is incredibly rare in this day and age where ‘the album’ has taken a backseat to ‘the single.’
The stakes were high for this album; Following the dizzying highs set by Visions could not have been easy. But somehow, Boucher managed to not only top that album but raise the bar even higher for those who follow. I bet you anything that in the coming years, her influence will be felt in every major pop release. This album wears its ‘pop’ label proudly, but is unmistakably and unashamedly, a Grimes record.
***Essential Tracks: “Flesh without Blood,” “Artangels,” “REALiTI,” “World Princess, Pt. II,” “Venus Fly,” “Butterfly” (The whole album, to be honest)***
The Long List (Those that came close to cracking the top 10 [Alphabetical Order]):
- AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP– A$AP Rocky
- Beauty Behind The Madness– The Weeknd
- Blue Neighborhood– Troye Sivan
- Breathe In. Breathe Out.– Hilary Duff
- Carrie & Lowell– Sufjan Stevens
- Fetty Wap– Fetty Wap
- If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late– Drake
- I Love You, Honeybear– Father John Misty
- In Colour– Jamie XX
- M3LL155X– FKA Twigs
- Pageant Material– Kacey Musgraves
- Reflection– Fifth Harmony
- 25– Adele
Favorite Songs of the Year:
- “Adore”- Cashmere Cat feat. Ariana Grande
- “All That”- Carly Rae Jepson
- “Alright”- Kendrick Lamar
- “Antidote”- Travis Scott
- “Bitch Better Have My Money”- Rihanna
- “Bite”- Troye Sivan
- “Butterfly”- Grimes
- “Clearest Blue”- CHVRCHES
- “Coffee”- Miguel
- “Cool For The Summer”- Demi Lovato
- “Dime Store Cowgirl”- Kacey Musgraves
- “Energy”- Drake
- “face the sun”- Miguel feat. Lenny Kravitz
- “Flesh without Blood”- Grimes
- “Good For You”- Selena Gomez feat. A$AP Rocky
- “Ghosttown”- Madonna
- “Hands To Myself”- Selena Gomez
- “Hello”- Adele
- “Here”- Alessia Cara
- “High By The Beach”- Lana Del Rey
- “The Hills”- The Weeknd
- “Hollywood Dreams”- Miguel
- “in time”- FKA Twigs
- “King Kunta”- Kendrick Lamar
- “Kill V. Maim”- Grimes
- “Know Yourself”- Drake
- “Lean On”- Major Lazer feat. DJ Snake & MØ
- “The Less I Know The Better”- Tame Impala
- “Let It Happen”- Tame Impala
- “Leave A Trace”- CHVRCHES
- “Living For Love”- Madonna
- “Lost Boy”- Troye Sivan
- “Love Me Like You Do”- Ellie Goulding
- “Love Myself”- Hailee Steinfeld
- “Magnets”- Disclosure feat. Lorde
- “REALiTi”- Grimes
- “Run Away With Me”- Carly Rae Jepson
- “Same Old Love”- Selena Gomez
- “Soap”- Melanie Martinez
- “Sorry”- Justin Bieber
- “Sparks”- Beach House
- “Sparks”- Hilary Duff
- “Stitches”- Shawn Mendes
- “Trap Queen”- Fetty Wap
- “True Love”- Ariana Grande
- “Youth”- Troye Sivan
- “When We Were Young”- Adele
- “Where Are Ü Now?”- Jack Ü feat. Justin Bieber
- “Wild”- Troye Sivan
- “WTF (Where They From)”- Missy Elliot feat. Pharrell Williams
- “679”- Fetty Wap feat. Remy Boyz