Scene’s Best Albums of 2015
1. Kendrick Lamar — “To Pimp a Butterfly”
K.Dot’s follow up to “good kid, m.A.A.d city” maintains the same urgency as that album’s personal narrative, but refocuses its subject on more universal questions of black identity. “To Pimp a Butterfly” uses Lamar’s rise to the top of the rap game to explore the ways in which racial inequality affects communities. Over intricate, jittery jazz and G-funk-inspired beats, Lamar gives us an idiosyncratic modern epic — featuring Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Pharrell and a posthumous Tupac in supporting roles — about returning to his hometown of Compton that was indubitably 2015’s best.
2. Grimes — “Art Angels”
“Art Angels” is the sound of an artist stepping out of the fog. Singer-songwriter Clare Boucher takes everything that made “Visions” intriguing — vocal hooks galore, sprawling cultural influences, an airy and ethereal production edge — and distills it into laser-cut pop. “Art Angels” carries all the fierceness and power displayed by A-list pop stars like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift but operates completely on its own terms.
3. Jamie xx — “In Colour”
The cover of “In Colour” is a rainbow pinwheel and each of producer Jamie Smith’s 11 tracks plays like a different shade of dance music. “Gosh” is his stab at future garage; “Obvs” conjures minimal techno; “Stranger in a Room” harkens back to the xx’s muted indie pop; “Loud Places” is his bid for pop-leaning house anthem; “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” is his Young Thug-featuring Hot 97 banger. Coursing through all of these styles, though, is Jamie xx’s idealism about the power of dance music to bring people together.
4. Father John Misty — “I Love You, Honeybear”
On the year’s most emotionally affecting album, Father John Misty attempts to reconcile a cynical worldview with the experience of falling in love. It all comes together in a single line on the climactic “Holy S**t,” when, after rattling off a litany of all that’s wrong with the world, he objects, “What I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.” Perhaps underneath Misty’s cynical facade is a beating heart after all.
5. Vince Staples — “Summertime ’06”
“Summer of 2006, the beginning of the end of everything I thought I knew,” Long Beach rapper Vince Staples wrote of the experiences that inspired his major-label debut. Backed by ominous bass-heavy production from No I.D., Clams Casino and DJ Dahi, Staples delivers a deeply nuanced gangsta rap coming-of-age that positions him as one of the best storytellers working in rap today.
6. Courtney Barnett — “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit”
Courtney Barnett’s debut album just landed her a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist — and deservedly so. On her lucid storybook of an album, she combines quirky happenings with the mundane to create humorous, relatable scenes. Barnett’s raw, unassuming reflections are anything but prosaic when paired with her garage-esque guitar interludes, distinctly captivating croon and vivid lyricism.
7. Sufjan Stevens — “Carrie & Lowell”
Everything that’s made Sufjan’s work simultaneously endearing and unwieldy in the past — long album titles, ridiculous concepts, and overstuffed folk instrumentation — is completely absent on “Carrie & Lowell.” The sheer power of his songwriting and intimate performances make for an urgently personal and starkly gorgeous record.
8. Joanna Newsom — “Divers”
“Divers” is Joanna Newsom’s first album in five years and, fittingly, it finds her reflecting on time. The unpredictability of time is a recurrent theme in Newsom’s lyrics, which are littered with literary and historical allusions. The instrumentation — from Newsom’s polyrhythmic harp to lush orchestral arrangements — is just as complex as her questions about metaphysics, making for her most brilliant album yet.
9. Beach House — “Depression Cherry” / “Thank Your Lucky Stars”
Beach House is a band that evolves not in bounds but in measured steps, subtly refining their craft on the two LPs this year: the expansive “Depression Cherry” and the back-to-basics “Thank Your Lucky Stars.” In tandem, Victoria Legrand’s cryptic poetry and Alex Scally’s shimmering guitar riffs warmly invite you into their mesmerizing world of love and loss.
10. Sleater-Kinney — “No Cities to Love”
After a nearly decade-long hiatus, Sleater-Kinney returned with an album that sounds just as urgent and restless as their earlier work. “Only together do we make the rules!” Corin Tucker howls, and the album — a tight, propulsive, empathetic record that tackles everything from retail wages to the cost of success — is proof of just how true that is.
11. Alabama Shakes — “Sound & Color”
Frontwoman Brittany Howard delivers her lyrics in a twangy, breathy and rushed manner — as if she is confessing, before countering herself with an assured sermon. Her wants are demands; her desires become your own. Songs like “Gimme All Your Love” are not desperate pleas but empowering passions. On the band’s sophomore album, Howard’s powerful stage presence — apparent even on recorded tracks — and gritty falsetto elevate her to a relatable, grunge-ethereal rock star.
12. Miguel — “Wildheart”
Miguel recently posted the definition of numinous on Instagram: “describing an experience that makes you fearful yet fascinated, awed yet attracted — the powerful feeling of being overwhelmed and inspired.” Such an adjective can be affixed to “Wildheart”: an intensely sensuous journey through the R&B singer’s desires and conflicting roles as “pimp, pastor and pope,” as he opens up about sexuality and religion. Miguel bares it all on “Wildheart” — the closest we’ll come to “pillow talk and coffee in the morning” with him.
13. Titus Andronicus — “The Most Lamentable Tragedy”
The album is about as ambitious — and sprawling — as albums get: a 93-minute, 29-track punk rock opera about manic depression. Patrick Stickles and crew have created a dense masterpiece that rewards deciphering its myriad literary allusions as much as enjoying the immediate pleasures of its rousing anthems like “Fired Up” and “Dimed Out.”
14. Viet Cong — “Viet Cong”
Viet Cong’s debut rattles and hurtles forward like a runaway subway train. Post-punk produced with a harsh industrial edge, the music of Viet Cong alternately shimmers and grinds in a dynamic juxtaposition. For an album largely about how meaningless life is, “Viet Cong” can’t help but assert its own purpose for existing: it’s just damn good rock.
15. Girlpool — “Before the World Was Big”
Two girls and two guitars evoke emotional, raw connections. Your world inevitably shrinks as simple melodies and vulnerable lyrics pull you into childhood friends Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker’s work. Their songs act as nostalgic ruminations, with the two reminiscing on individual and shared memories: friends, dreams and going to school in matching dresses. The intimate album proves — as the pair sings on one song — “a magnifying glass against my head,” as if the listener has tuned into a bedroom conversation turned jam session.
16. Drake — “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late”
On Drake’s latest “mixtape,” every line is a hook, and the stripped-down beats he’s chosen allow them to shine. Shedding the awkwardness and self-pity that marred previous efforts, the Canadian creates his first essential record. What a time to be alive.
17. Tame Impala — “Currents”
“Currents” is an album that not only pays homage to psychedelic rock groups of the ’60s and ’70s but also explores new dimensions of that sound. Dreamy layered synths and soulful pop hooks replace some of the abrasive guitar lines of albums past, and do so well. Kevin Parker excels with his witty songwriting and clean production in the Australian band’s most original work to date.
18. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — “Surf”
“Surf” was the byproduct of each of the members of Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment wanting to give back to their loved ones. The young, Chicago-native musicians crafted a joyous, celebratory collection of songs and made them accessible to anyone who would be positively affected by them. By releasing the album as a free download on iTunes (the first of it’s kind), the album did numbers as huge as its tracks.
19. Speedy Ortiz — “Foil Deer”
“You gotta be clean and pretend like you wanna be clean / To pull through in a dark world,” frontwoman Sadie Dupuis snarls on “Foil Deer.” The noisy Massachusetts band’s second full-length is a guide to surviving in a world that is too often cruel. Dupuis confronts aggressions both personal (abusive relationships, insecurity) and systemic (rape culture, gender roles) on this vivid, arresting rallying cry of an album.
20. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Emotion”
Carly Rae Jepsen has become pop’s most deft chronicler of infatuation and “Emotion” is bursting at the seams with fizzy melodies, pristine production and succinct lyricism. Her peers wish their greatest hits collections had as many perfect pop songs, from the ebullient (“I Really Like You,” “Boy Problems”) and the evocative (“All That,” “Warm Blood”) to the truly transcendent (“Run Away With Me”).