Too often I hear people complain that no one makes good music anymore. And honestly I used to fall into the camp that said so. But the truth is there is so much amazing music being made today–probably more than at any point in the past. But there’s so much being made that you may not end up hearing a lot of it. That’s true for me; I always browse through lots of year end lists and end up finding some of my favorite music by checking out the artists or albums that passed me by when they came out. I say all that to say:
2015 was an incredible year for music.
It’s hard to even remember all the great music I heard this year, but here are 20 of my favorite records that were released in 2015. Instead of counting down, I’m going to start with my absolute favorites and then list up from there. The top 3 could really be a tie, because they are so good in very different ways, but if I’m forced to pick a number one, I’d start with:
1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
This one had to grow on me for a bit. I’m a huge fan of Sufjan Stevens, but I’m not usually that drawn to sleepy, somber, depressing records like this. After a few listens I was pulled in by its subtlety and its lyrics that often feel specific by being ambiguous, and universal by being deeply personal. It was pushed over the top by an amazing amazing live performance when I had the chance to see him perform the entire album in Detroit.
2. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
I knew on first listen that this was going to be at the top of many year end lists, including mine. Kendrick Lamar came along at just the right moment with a near perfect hip hop album. This is more than one of the best albums of the year; in fact it’s probably the best hip hop album of the decade. I think it will prove to be a new blueprint for a generation of hip hop. This could easily be my number one as well.
3. Leon Bridges – Coming Home
If I were to pick a single album from this year that knew I could play for ANYONE and be confident they would enjoy it, this would be that album. It calls to mind the very best of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, and while it’s definitely steeped in heavy doses of 60’s R&B it still seems fresh and current. This record is so perfectly put together from the writing to the performances and production style. It’s rare that someone like Leon Bridges comes seemingly out of nowhere to make such a perfectly crafted record. Depending on the day and my mood, this could swap into the #1 or #2 slot on this list as well.
4. Toro Y Moi – What For?
This record is so close behind the ones above. I hadn’t heard of Toro Y Moi before this year, and I don’t really remember where I first discovered this record, but it’s been a revelation.
5. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett definitely has a very unique approach to writing and performing music. Often abrasive, occasionally gentle, always with an unexpected perspective.
6. Lord Huron – Strange Trails
This album has one of my favorite opening lines of all time: “Yes I know that love is like ghosts; few have seen it, but everybody talks.” That line sets up the rest of the album in a beautiful way that I didn’t realize until after a few listens. The whole record seems to be about love and death. It’s another record that grew on me. At first I just liked the two opening tracks. But the more I listened the more I grew to enjoy the whole record.
7. Sam Dew – Damn Sue
This is the only entry on the list that isn’t a full album. But there’s enough happening on this debut EP to make up for that. Sam Dew has a beautiful voice that slips back and forth between tenor and falsetto with impressive ease. If his voice wasn’t enough, the music and production are sharp, original, and unexpected. I can’t wait to hear a proper full length record from this guy.
8. Joanna Newsom – Divers
Joanna Newsom is one of those artists that will probably be on my best of list any time she releases an album, for the mere fact that her 2012 album, Ys, is my second favorite record of all time. That said, my bias may have made me rate Divers a little higher on the list than it deserves. It’s definitely a solid mid-career record, but not a shining example of Newsom at her best. But I haven’t listened as much as I would like because the vinyl I bought didn’t come with a download code and Newsom has eschewed the traditional streaming services.
9. Lupe Fiasco – Tetsuo & Youth
Lupe Fiasco is another one of those artists like Joanna Newsom (1st time that comparison has been made) in that he will always hold a high spot for me because his 2006 album Food & Liquor is another one of my favorites of all time. Nearly ten years into his career, it becomes hard to really rate where each record falls in the big picture, but I would say this is one of my favorite he’s ever done.
10. Michael Rault – Living Daylight
I can’t remember the last time so many of my favorite records were by new artists who I wasn’t familiar with before. But 2015 has been filled with lots of new surprises, and Michael Rault is one of them. I don’t even remember where I found this record, but I fell in love right away. I’m always a sucker for throwback rock n roll, and this is some of the best I’ve heard in a while.
11. Heems – Eat Pray Thug
I stumbled onto this album when it was featured on NPR First Listen one week. Heems gets major points for the song “American Flag Shopping” which was written as a reflection of living in New York post 9/11 but has unfortunately become more relevant than ever in recent weeks.
12. Tame Impala – Currents
This is such a fun record. I was a big fan of Tame Impala’s last record, Lonerism, but I played it so much I grew tired of it and almost didn’t even give this album a chance. I’m glad I did though. Best groove of any record in 2015.
13. Ben Folds – So There
Sometimes there’s an artist I like who has been around so long that I stop expecting them to do anything great again. That was Ben Folds circa 2014. Ben Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen
is a 90’s classic, and throughout his solo career he’s written some of the most clever and incisive lyrics I can think of. But then he started showing up on reality and seemingly having a mid-life crisis, and I thought he was done. But then he made this album with the Nashville Symphony that perfectly marries pop music to classical music.
14. London O’Connor – O∆
This has gotten to be the most millennial record released this year. O’Connor’s disinterested rapping and sarcastic singing are hard to imagine coming from someone born before 1990. If his delivery isn’t enough to do it, the lyrics of “Nobody Hangs Out Anymore” prove that he should be in the running for generational spokesperson. I would’ve listened to this record a lot more if it had seen a traditional release, but as far as I can tell it was only really “released” via O’Connor’s soundcloud page where you can still stream it. Searching around recently I found this download link
that seems legit and I’m looking forward to working it into more regular rotation.
15. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
For the longest time there was something about Alabama Shakes that made me not want to like them. But when this record came out, there were several times I overheard friends or coworkers listening to it and found myself really drawn to it. Embarrassingly, it wasn’t until I had to Shazam an Apple commercial featuring “Sound & Color” that I finally admitted I’m into them.
16. Lianne La Havas – Blood
Another new artist. Another album I don’t remember discovering. But this is one solid pop record. Particularly the song “What You Don’t Do” could be the most perfectly constructed pop song of the year.
17. Bilal – In Another Life
Though he’s been around for years, I just became aware of Bilal after his features on To Pimp a Butterfly. His solo record is beautifully produced and reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield.
18. Eskimeaux – O.K.
I only discovered this record by reading other best of 2015 lists. It really reminds me of Camera Obscura, but more electronic at times, and probably catchier.
19. Destroyer – Poison Season
This is another great example of a record that uses string arrangements to blur the lines between popular and classical music. Dan Bejar’s voice makes it hard to call this “pop” though. At times it feels like Bob Dylan’s attempt at crooning on a chamber pop record produced by Bruce Springsteen. Which is to say it’s weird, but captivating.
20. Adele – 25
It’s hard to not include the best selling opening week ever. This albumwould make the list for nothing more than the production of “Hello” which is a masterclass for how to use subtle, minimal accompaniment to make a strong voice really shine. Just listen to the restraint of the drums, and the clear unembellished notes of the backup singers.
Numbers 21 through 25 are my honorable mentions.
They are all records that made a strong or lasting impression on me, but that I haven’t spent as much time with. The truth is 15-25 could all slip and slide around in the order on further listening.
21. Seinabo Sey – Pretend
22. Diane Coffee – Everybody’s a Good Dog
23. Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass
24. Songhoy Blues – Music in Exile
25. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf