2015 was a pretty incredible year for albums. There were so many good ones I had a pretty-near impossible time cutting it down to just ten (I could’ve done top 20, but hey now, that’s a lot of work). Musicians were all on their top form, with solid albums by Florence and the Machine Beach House (two, actually, randomly), and artists like Lana Del Rey and Father John Misty growing into the full potential of their weirdness. Then there were some pleasant surprises, like Justin Bieber making great pop songs, and making us all hate him less (did anyone actually see that one coming?) But what was most reassuring was that musicians weren’t afraid to get a little weird this year: Kevin Parker throwing out the guitars and taking up the fuzz, Kendrick Lamar moving towards jazz, or Grimes going, well, full Grimes on us. There was so much that was exciting about 2015 in music, and any of my top 8, on a more quiet year, could’ve been my top 1 or 2.
Though considering how fucked up 2015 was—the attacks, the disasters, the new levels set for the melting planet—maybe we needed really great music more than other years. So, well, thanks guys. Here’s my take on it.
10) Carly Rae Jepsen—E-MO-TION
“Run Away With Me,” this album’s opener, is the best song of 2015. Seriously. Anyone who lives with me in Japan knows how obsessed I was with this song. I can’t remember the last time any song was capable of making me this immediately, ecstatically happy–it was like a three minute serotonin rush. It sets up the best outright pop album of the year, which is impressive considering Jepsen’s voice seems like the type you’d grow sick of after two songs. At the end of the day, by far the weakest track is the “Call Me Maybe” wannabe, “I Really, Really Like You.” Seriously, why was that the lead single, who the hell was in charge of that decision? I will never stop harping on about how underrated “Run Away With Me” is, or the rest of the album, for that matter.
9) Lana Del Rey—Honeymoon
I’ve always found Lana fascinating and frustrating in equal parts: one minute, she’s crooning through a timeless ballad, next minute she’s trying to rap and calling herself the “Gangster Nancy Sinatra.” She can definitely nail the femme fatal image, but sometimes she takes it a little too far for this century, always calling herself the “bad bitch on the side.” Her music’s always been a little misdirected that way.
This year, though, saw her mature significantly as an artist. On Honeymoon, she finally understands the person she wants to portray through those ballads, nailing the fading, doomed-starlet image. The album tells the story of a couple dragging themselves through the American southwest at their wits end—the drugs have run out, the hopelessness has taken over. At first, the chorus to the lead single (“all I wanna do is get high by the beach”) sounded like a stupid new hook that fell into the worst of her songs. But then I listened to it in relation to the rest of the album, and realized it’s a recognition of how empty her life’s become. There are no answers now. There’s only drugs and the fading shadows made by those Hollywood legends.
8) Father John Misty—I Love You, Honeybear
Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, has become indi-music’s big social critic. Here are eleven songs so distant and self-assured they’re almost satirical, full of the one-liners this year. Sarcasm that acidic might seem pretty unappealing, but I Love You, Honeybear is also a deeply personal concept album: falling in love during the apocalypse. “Let’s make love on the mattress, while the global market crashes,” he sings, and although this could be taken as just grim humor, it starts to become clear, as the album continues, just how earnest he’s being. “Holy Shit,” the album’s best song, starts off like a google search, as he spouts of a series of just-barely-connected 2015 buzzwords–“infotainment, capital, satirical news, free energy, independence, happiness”– in such a way that drains them of meaning. But by the end of the song, it becomes clear he’s actually singing to his wife, saying “maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity, but what I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me.” Love in the face of despair: here’s an album that was pretty desperately needed in 2015.
Bjork and Stevens make a bit of a pair this year, as two old hands both making their best music in years through dealing with tremendous loss and upheaval within their lives. Bjork deals with the separation from her husband in about as Bjork a way as possible: by being as expansive and ethereal as she’s ever been. Even by her standards, these are some difficult songs, often hitting ten minutes and filled with uncomfortable silences or screeching stretches. On “Black Lake,” it’s really like she’s singing from the bottom of a lake (sounds just bubbling up), while “Atom Dance” superimposes two entirely different songs on top of each other (one sung by Antony) to demonstrate how impossible it is for lovers to communicate or understand one another. It’s some pretty intense material, and I’m not quite sure I totally appreciate the album as a whole yet—it’s just so dense. But there’s an emotional honesty to the lyrics here I haven’t seen in her music since Homogenous (her best album). And that’s probably the thing that’ll keep me coming back to the album as I begin to grapple it.
6) Sufjan Stevens—Carrie and Lowell
Where Bjork goes out and searches the stars, Stevens collapses inward in the face of his own tragedy: the death of his schizophrenic mother, who’d abandoned him multiple times throughout his childhood. In the 2000’s, he was a bit of a passing bard—Woody Guthrie-style—moving around America and singing beautiful, heartwrenching ballads about the people he met. He never sang about himself (at least, not explicitly). Carrie and Lowell, then, is a lifetime’s worth of confessions condensed into a single album, as he goes back through his childhood and tries to make sense of everything that happened. Through his shattered whispers he tells everything, and you can see the swimming pool, the stained beds, empty swings, and the bandages on his dying mother. ‘God’ is never explicitly mentioned, but it’s a fiercely spiritual album, understood through religion at its most vital: the kind you turn to when there’s really nothing left. “Nothing can be changed/my brother had a daughter/the beauty that she brings: illumination.” It’s a draining, life-affirming album.
5) Tame Impala—Currents
If there was ever any question about Kevin Parker being a musical maverick, Currents is his ultimate counter-argument. After two albums which were strong enough to just about revive psychedelic music, Parker throws it all away—guitars and all—and jumps a couple of decades. And he makes what is really, at the end of the day, a really strong pop album. No one in music this year had that big a turnaround. But for all the shifts in tempo and instrumentals, Tame Impala never lost that introspective, emotionally dissonant core that makes their music so captivating. Oh, and “Let it Happen” might just be the best song he’ll ever write.
4) Grimes—Art Angels
Cue another super-idiosyncratic indi artist that swung much closer towards pop this year. Claire Boucher is best known for “Oblivion,” 2010’s massive sleeper hit was about being scared of walking alone after getting molested—“see you in the dark of the night” is the song’s hook. Art Angels takes that marriage of unflinching lyricism with catchy hooks and runs away with it. Here are some of the hooks to the catchiest songs on the album: getting swallowed up by the post-climate change ocean in California; becoming a man and getting away with anything; alienating those around her because she’s willing to speak her mind. Since when was an album so scathingly political this much fun? It’s like if Liz Phair and Cindy Lauper had a baby. The music is so eclectic, and styles change so rapidly, that changing songs on the album sounds like changing radio channels, and yet it all sticks together amazingly well. Art Angels is the album for the internet—representing its screeching, uncertain, exciting center. I can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.
3) Joanna Newsom—Divers
Joanna Newsom is not for everybody. The Celtic songstress, weaving comfortably through multiple genres at once, is known for her mystifying lyrics and massive songs: 2010’s Have One On Me was over 2 hours long, detailing her travels through fantasy lands with knights and pheasants (which were all just metaphors for her life, go figure). Yeah, that one took me a while to get into.
With Divers, I fell in love immediately. After her marriage to Andy Samberg (yes, Andy-SNL-Samberg), she began to realize that we aren’t really afraid of death until there’s someone in our lives we truly couldn’t possibly live without. She comes to terms with this idea on Divers, written with an immense level of honesty and clarity her previous albums didn’t have. The sounds are richer, with not a minute wasted, while still retaining those otherworldly, transportive overtones. If there was one album this year that really moved me, this was it by a longshot.
2) Kendrick Lamar—To Pimp a Butterfly
It was pretty cruel for Lamar to release this big guy early March this year; right away you could tell the other albums, “go home, this be album of the year.” In terms of its lyrical content and quality, scope, and musical complexity, nothing really comes close. And where Good Kid, MAAD City told, clearly, Lamar’s origin story, Butterfly is a mapping of his subconscious, of his fears and dreams that keep being dragged down by the darkening situation around him. It’s the most disorientating, disconcerting. People call him a prophet, and this is the album he tries to reconcile that image with the immense and growing tragedies around. Getting dragged into that complex world, cushioned by the sounds of Flying Lotus at his acid-jazz best—there’s nothing out there like it. And I’m not gonna say anymore because there’s already hundreds of reviews out there. But this is one of those once-every-decade-or-so albums you need to listen to. We all do.
1) Jamie xx—In Color
And Kendrick’s is the album of the year; that’s why I need to make the distinction of these being my favorite albums. Because while Kendrick’s album means more to the bigger picture, Jamie xx’s means more to me. In a year where the best music was shaped either by personal or public tragedies (from Stevens to Lamar), In Color ignores all of this completely. Joyfully. It creates a world for itself. It samples from the best of British dance of the last fifteen years, and yet sounds as fresh and new as anything out this year. All the songs are amazing on their own, and sound even better together. It’s that extremely rare dance album that builds between songs, giving room for quieter moments between the dancefloor highs. It’s the conversation between the highs and lows here that make it, well, maybe just the best dance album I’ve listened to. “I have never reached such highs,” Romy affirms in “Loud Places.” In a year as musically wild as varied as 2015, there really was an album for just about everyone, to capture a perfect moment. And this one was mine—standing on the roof, facing the emerald glow of the Seoul cityscape.
Happy new year everyone! For more musical highs this coming year.