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The Best Albums of 2015

February 15, 2016

By John Corrado

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a ButterflyThe one thing that stuck out to me when putting together this highly belated list of the best albums of 2015, is just how different the majority of these recordings are from each other.

But like the wide range of movies I watch, the music I listen to is just as diverse, an exciting mix of pop, classic rock, R&B and rap, that somehow all helps provide the soundtrack to my life.  And out of all the new albums I heard last year, these are my favourites, and the ones I keep revisiting again and again.  Enjoy!

#10: Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color: When their promising debut album Boys & Girls dropped in 2012, Alabama Shakes was seen by many as a revival group.  But on their fascinating sophomore album Sound & Color, the band led by the powerhouse vocals of Brittany Howard, prove that they are interested in much more than just roots music, dabbling in musical experimentation and even psychedelia.  The result is a woozy melding of R&B, soul, shoegaze and classic rock, a sprawling and endlessly impressive sonic landscape that defies easy categorization in the way it ebbs and flows.  It’s easy to get lost in, and grows on you over time, with the second track “Don’t Wanna Fight” providing a classic slice of blues-rock.

#9: Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit: Perched comfortably between the ingenious wordplay of Bob Dylan’s “Subterrannean Homesick Blues,” as well as the sounds of Kimya Dawson and Kurt Vile, Courtney Barnett’s cleverly titled Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was simultaneously one of the quirkiest and most exciting debut albums of last year.  Mixing garage rock riffs with delightful indie pop, the young Australian singer blasts her way through this eminently listenable collection of eleven tracks, impressing with both her hooky melodies and inspired songwriting skills, filling her songs with sharp observations on modern life and compellingly mundane storytelling.  This is a 1990s-inspired novelty album ripe with the anxieties and quarter life crises of right now, and it’s just as hilarious, emotionally resonant and enjoyable as it sounds.  The delightfully loopy “Elevator Operator” approaches Arlo Guthrie levels of brilliance.

#8: Adele – 25: From the elongated greeting of “Hello,” the opening track and first single on 25 which premiered with an intimate Xavier Dolan-directed music video, Adele instantly announced that she was not only back, but also still in top form.  Where 19 was a promising debut, and 21 is her masterpiece, 25 represents a natural progression for the British sensation.  At its best, like on the standout tracks “When We Were Young” and “Million Years Ago,” the album sees the torch singer reflecting upon fame and looking back on the wasted relationships of her young adult years, a process that allows for more of the emotional nakedness that has kept so many of us captivated by her music and lyrics.  Perhaps hype and expectations were a little too high, driving this to become one of the biggest albums of all time within a matter of days, but the eleven tracks here are as beautifully produced as ever and each one of them is excellent on its own terms, offering another shining showcase for her powerhouse vocals.

#7: Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION: After breaking out with the delightful bubblegum pop song “Call Me Maybe,” which reached earworm levels a few short years ago, Carly Rae Jepsen returned with one of the best pop albums of 2015, which didn’t get anywhere near enough of the attention or airplay it deserved.  Harkening back to the 1980s, and heavily inspired by girlpower pop stars like Cyndi Lauper, E•MO•TION is an impeccably produced collection of a dozen classic pop songs that fit her voice perfectly, and offer an appealing exploration of relationships and romantic yearning.  This is a surprisingly mature pop gem that ranks as the best thing Carly Rae Jepsen has ever done, and provides proof that the artist has arrived.  I can’t wait to hear more from her in the future.

#6: Leon Bridges – Coming Home: Although Coming Home sounds like it could have come straight out of a time capsule from the 1960s, this old school gospel and soul record is actually the promising debut of young Texas singer-songwriter Leon Bridges.  With a sound inspired by growing up in a fundamentalist household and only allowed to listen to old music, and even recorded on equipment appropriate to the era, the artist recalls soul greats like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, delivering a collection of ten songs that are all incredible slices of classic R&B.  Leon Bridges is a throwback artist in the best sense, even wearing outfits assembled from vintage shops and old clothes taken straight from the era of his musical forefathers, and Coming Home is one of the smoothest easy listenings albums of last year.  Pure catnip for nostalgic listeners like myself.

#5: Dr. Dre – Compton: A Soundtrack: The long awaited third studio album from Dr. Dre, Compton: A Soundtrack arrived amidst a sea of lofty expectations last summer, timed perfectly to coincide with the release of the exhilarating and powerful N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton.  This is an album that impressively manages to both live up to and surpass the almost insurmountable hype, offering some of the beat master’s best and most impressive productions.  There are moments here that take it too far, especially that unfortunate Eminem lyric on “Medicine Man,” but for the most part this is gangsta rap as a reflection of experience.  When the rapper stages murder on the terrifying “Loose Cannons” there is a haunting desperation to the violent lyrics and dissonant musical backdrop, and in its best moments, like the anthemic “Just Another Day” and the autobiographical “Talking to My Diary,” the album becomes poetic in its portrait of the title California city.  This is Compton.  Dark, violent, and often dangerous, but filled with sick beats and impressive production values, that give way to pressing social commentary on a society that still breeds gang violence and police brutality.

#4: The Weeknd – Beauty Behind the Madness: Even as modern R&B sensation Abel Tesfaye, performing under his stage moniker The Weeknd, continues his ascent into the mainstream, his songs are still just as emotive and dirty.  Behind a wall of slick and hypnotic production, the singer takes us into all of the drugs and sex that make up the seedy underside of the music industry, and the depression that often comes in their wake.  It’s fitting that his biggest hit this year, “Can’t Feel My Face,” is a thumping club banger on the surface, filled with sly cocaine-as-sex references not so subtly hidden right there in the title.  And many listeners, myself included, kept going back for another hit.

#3: Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon: Oh what a lonely place it must be inside the mind of Lana Del Rey, or at least the version of herself that she puts forth through her music, who is equal parts the lead in a classic Hollywood melodrama, and modern emo princess.  But her pain once again provides the perfect cathartic outlet for our own depression on her shimmering third album Honeymoon, where listeners are once again allowed to revel in her woozy and almost dreamlike melancholia, through a collection of songs filled with resonating loneliness.  The singer presents herself both at her most defiantly accessible on the Europop-inspired “Salvatore,” and at her most introspective on the T.S. Elliot-influenced interlude “Burnt Norton,” a deeply philosophical foray into the mysterious ways of the universe that provides a striking break right in the middle.  This is the work of an admirably non-mainstream popstar, and if that sounds like a contradiction, it’s exactly what makes Lana Del Rey so great.

#2: Tame Impala – Currents: Mixing spacey synthesizers and psychedelic rock, singer Kevin Parker takes us on an ambient journey through relationships and personal metamorphosis on Currents, the unexpectedly moving latest album from his Australian rock band Tame Impala.  The album unfolds almost like a trip through time or the cosmos, as the beautifully layered sounds and instrumentations loop and build upon themselves, exploring themes of personal evolution on the emotional gut punch “Yes I’m Changing,” and entering an almost metaphysical realm on the gripping philosophical trip “Past Life.”  From start to finish, this is a hypnotic listening experience, that mesmerizes with its mix of compelling sounds, beautiful vocals and haunting sense of feeling.

#1: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly:  Mixing elements of rap, hip-hop, freeform jazz and poetic spoken word, nothing about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is conventional, and that’s precisely what makes it such a complex and rewarding experience.  Following the great Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, this second studio album from the Compton-born rapper unfolds over a hypnotic and exhilarating 79 minute running time that reveals something new upon every listen, telling a gripping story of depression, suicidal thoughts and drug abuse, born out of his experiences growing up in the now infamous city.  This is a landmark album, a staggering, challenging and all together brilliant piece of work, that addresses what it means to be a young black man in a world still ripe with systemic racism and police brutality.  Because of this, To Pimp a Butterfly is not only the best album of 2015, but also the most timely and culturally important.  It’s an instant classic, and one of the best rap albums since the 1990s, following a path paved by N.W.A.’s trailblazing music.  A thrilling masterpiece.

Honourable Mentions: Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell, Randy Bachman – Heavy Blues, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – It’s a Holiday Soul Party, Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material, Pentatonix – Pentatonix, The Barenaked Ladies – Silverball, Gary Clark Jr. – The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, Vince Staples – Summertime ’06, Chris Stapleton – Traveller, Mumford & Sons – Wilder Mind.

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