End-of-year lists can be fun, but also maddening. We like reading them because it gives us a peek at everything that we might have missed this past year, but often what makes the list can come down to what feels most important rather than what we actually liked.So for this year’s best albums list, we decided to take a different approach. We won’t claim these are the best albums of 2015 (indeed, one came out so late in 2014 we’re counting it this year), but they were certainly our favorite. And since the top entry on a lot of lists will likely be the same this year (and rightfully so, to be quite honest), we chose to make a Top 5 rather than a ranked list. Because, while rankings are fun, this list is meant to be about acknowledging greatness, not pitting artists against each other. On that note, we present our favorite 20 albums of the year, starting with the bottom 15, listed alphabetically:
Algiers — Algiers
When we spent a day with Algiers earlier this fall, we were struck by the degree to which their jovial nature contrasted with the pain and darkness in their music. But it’s possible that the music, a soulful response to the oppression of global colonialism, is itself the catharsis that allows them to find joy amidst the sorrow. Algiers is a tight, focused sequence of songs that draws from gospel, noise, hip-hop, and industrial dance music. Lyrically, it’s a nuanced socio-political commentary on the colonial powers from which they came (the US) and where some now live (the UK). It’s confrontational, thoughtful, and gorgeous, and there’s already more in the can that we hope to hear in 2016.
Björk — Vulnicura
After Biophilia — an album that tried to lyrically establish a triptych between of the scientific, musical, and personal with each song — Björk focused solely on the latter, as her deteriorating partnership with Matthew Barney seemed to subsume her whole sense of the world. Here, the process of being swallowed and spat out by another person’s selfhood is meticulously documented in chronological steps towards a devastating breakup: nine months before, five months before, three months before, like a clock set towards personal apocalypse — which is reached in the album’s merciless centerpiece, “Black Lake.” Heartbreak is often romanticized retrospectively in music by lush, sweeping melodies, but here, Björk has made an album that truly echoes the way it morphs and deforms you through time, and how, eventually, it begins to release you.— Moze Halperin
Carly Rae Jepsen – E*MO*TION
The “Call Me Maybe” queen had quite the massive debut to follow up on, and while the sales numbers might not reflect it, Carly Rae Jepsen delivered one of the most memorable pop records in recent memory. Stacked deep with potential singles, an earworm hit (that failed to catch on with terrestrial radio), and a pair of adorable music videos, E*MO*TION seemed to check all the boxes. The record did well with critics, who possibly saw the 30-year-old budding pop star as more relatable than the human Bratz and Barbie dolls that top the charts — we sure did. But regardless of how many copies it sold, we’ll always have that sax solo.
Desaparecidos — Payola
Conor Oberst’s return to political subject matter is wholeheartedly welcome; if you remember his Bush screeds and anticapitalist polemics of the early aughts, you might agree. This reunion record from his Saddle Creek-era band Desaparecidos was well worth the eight-year wait, with Oberst taking aim at the disaffected left, capitalist barons, and evil cretins like “Sheriff Joe” Arpaio. It might be another eight years until we get another Desaparecidos record, and we’ll probably need it just as badly then, too.
Dr. Dre — Compton: A Soundtrack
Dr. Dre sits in an elite class of executive producers, maestros who delegate, curate, and sequence masterpieces without getting their hands too dirty. Maintaining the cinematic conceit of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, he wields MCs old (Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg) and new (Lamar), mixing in relative unknowns (Marsha Ambrosius) with crowned queens (Jill Scott). Dre’s rapping isn’t the point here. He’s an auteur, screening a film, telling a tale through the lens of his hometown.
Erykah Badu — But You Caint Use My Phone
When this tape dropped earlier this month, it didn’t take more than a few listens to know it was one of our favorite records we’d hear this year. It’s vintage Badu, with the queen as a cipher for influences both mystical and rooted in pop culture. She flips Drake’s viral hit “Hotline Bling” into an actual hotline, cracking jokes as effortlessly as she ad-libs one-liners. It sounds like some shit she made by accident, on purpose.
FKA twigs — M3LL155X
One might assume that an EP whose name you’re embarrassed to try to say — lest you sound like an oddly music-savvy robot — might be a little emotionally, well, distant. But it turns out that the intimidating conglomeration of letters and numbers is just pronounced “Melissa,” and that this albums is visceral and human as hell. Twigs’ voice often used to swell with oddly impassive sweetness, but here, it’s often distorted into a thing of menace. The beats here are more fractured and erratic than on LP1, which could sink into the background of, say, your Cool Friend’s dinner party. As indicated in the 14-minute video that accompanied this EP, though, each song plays a key role in a structure of metamorphosis, and it’s imperative that none of it disappear into the background.— MH
Ibeyi — Ibeyi
These Parisian Afro-Cuban twin sisters may have been plucked from obscurity by XL Recordings’ Richard Russell, but Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz have their own musical heritage in their DNA. The daughters of the late Cuban percussionist Anga Diaz and the French-Venezuelan singer Maya Dagnino, they were born in Paris, but spent the first two years of their life in Havana. Their sparse arrangements — Lisa-Kaindé plays piano, Naomi percussion — leaves plenty of room their voices, which float between strong, taut, and breathy on the same track. And their cover of Jay Electronica’s “Better In Tune With the Infinite” is the most incredible cover we’ve heard in years.
Jamie xx — In Colour
The xx’s sire of samples got a little flack for his minimal take on ’90s house and island sounds, but once you’ve given In Colour a few spins, it’s hard not to wrap yourself up in it the warm tones and massaging bass lines. It’s built upon an obsessive catalogue of dance music samples, records and sounds you just know he’s heard countless times, smoothed out the rough edges, and added to his repertoire. For a second, it seemed like Jamie xx might have been The xx’s secret weapon, but at this point it almost feels like they’re holding him back.
Joanna Newsom — Divers
Divers brims with instrumental statements of timelessness. It’s something of a Western music-historical mashup, using everything from celesta to mellotron to harpsichord to electric guitar to banjo to a full-blown string section. At the stunning album’s lyrical core is the question of set limitations of human existence: namely, that we move forward in time, forging layered identities and connections, until the forward motion pries these things from us. The album suggests a series of futile and self-aware attempts to mimic impossible ideals of time-transcendence: instruments that commingle now and then, a loop between the last line of the album and the first, Newsom’s croon played suddenly backward on the deceptively simple “The Things I Say.” Each is a beautiful gesture that acknowledges its own ontological failure, which can generally be said of the will to live despite the promise of death. “I know we must abide/each by the rules that bind us here,” sings Newsom on the stripped-down title track. Around this song, on the rest of the album, she fashions a dense, knotted sonic armor against these rules, while conscious of the fact that no armor is likely to work.— MH
Kelela — Hallucinogen
There’s no getting around it: Kelela’s latest EP is drenched in sex. It’s as if she structured a record around the stages of sexual response, but in reverse. The Excitement Phase of “The High,” the Plateau Phase of “All The Way Down” and “Rewind,” the Orgasmic “Goemenasai,” and the uncomfortable Resolution of “A Message.” Sexy stuff aside, it’s Kelela’s coming-out party; on her breakout tape, Cut 4 Me, her influence was overshadowed a bit by the Fade to Mind/Nightslugs crew that produced it. But Hallucinogen is all Kelela, way more focused and coherent. We’re not even sure she needs an actual LP — more of this would suit us just fine.
Magical Cloudz — Are You Alone?
Devon Welsh got our attention when he made all the boys and girls cry with 2013’s Impersonator, so his follow-up was highly anticipated. Are You Alone? has more room for love than the highly introspective Impersonator, but it’s no less soulful and brooding. There are few voices like Welsh’s, a plaintive croon that doesn’t force itself upon you; rather, it commands your silence and attention. “Downtown” is a favorite, but the above clip for “Game Show,” shot at a transcendent performance at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust, is a close second.
Rick Ross — Black Dollar
When we wrote about Ross’ return-to-form mixtape Black Dollar earlier this year, we mostly spoke about his palpable skills as a fabulist, building a mythical empire from Scarface dreams and a velvet voice. But Ross’ true skill is similar to Dr. Dre’s; he’s a maestro of executive production, moving producers and singers and guest rappers around like pieces on a chessboard. On this tape, he seems oddly grounded, talking about the realities of “Blowin’ Money Fast” on “Foreclosures,” even as he lives the-dream and does “The Money Dance.” Like an impressionist painting, Ross only works if you don’t look too closely, and suspend your disbelief. But if you can, it’s a hell of a ride.
Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood, and the Rajasthan Express — Junun
Jonny Greenwood may have won the Cultural Exchange Olympics this year with his stellar soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s documentary film Junun. Considering that the film was largely about the music that Greenwood made with Shye Ben Tzur and a group of Indian musicians going by the name of the Rajasthan Express, though, it could also be said that PTA’s film was really just a music video for their record. Regardless, the Rajasthan Express brings intense percussion chops to the table, giving a rhythmic layer for Greenwood to lay his synthesized steez on top of. It’s some of the most ambitious music we’ve heard all year, blending the sonic palettes of the East and West in a way that seems effortless (and respectful).
Sports — All of Something
When we caught Kenyon College’s Sports in Brooklyn this fall, we felt privileged to do so, as it might just be the last time they tour. The creative forces behind the Ohio pop-punk band are scattering across the country, ready for the next steps of their individual journeys. But we’ll always have All of Something, a fun jaunt of an album laced with ennui. Against all odds, Sports makes being earnest sound cool. Listen to their last record and “Get Bummed Out.”
Courtney Barnett — Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett’s ascendance is a bit mystifying; not because it’s undeserved, but rather because it seems she was playing pubs less than two years ago and now sells out 3,000-cap venues with no sweat. Her popularity is likely due to her self-deprecating Down Under charm, palpable guitar chops, and gut-wrenchingly clever lyrics. She can bring the rock (“Pedestrian at Best”) and the finger-tapping shred (“Small Poppies”), but Barnett is at her best on the cheeky suburban ballad “Depreston.” Despite being a left-handed Australian guitar goddess, her folktale lyrics are incredibly relatable, like when she outdoes Alessia Cara’s disaffected antisocial schtick on “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party.” After her whirlwind world tour, Barnett certainly deserves a break, but if we’re lucky, it won’t last too long.
D’Angelo and the Vanguard — Black Messiah
We went hard on this record last December, and even though it was published just a day before our year-end albums list, it was such an instant classic, it still made the list. It bears repeating, though, because even after an entire year of new music, Black Messiah still stands above almost all of it. By now, we’ve seen D’Angelo tour behind the record, flesh it out live, and breathe even more life into the 14-years-in-the-making LP. His screeds ring just as true; riffs on climate change and police violence haven’t decreased in relevance over the last 12 months. And no one has made a better record in the genre we would call “soul” or “R&B,” for whatever that’s worth. Mostly, we just want you to remember that this record is barely a year old, and deserves a chorus of praise at any and all opportunities.
Downtown Boys — Full Communism
Downtown Boys is the most important band in music right now. Full stop. This is not escapism. This is not “blissed out pop.” Full Communism is aggressive, confrontational, and passionate. It’s punk rock in English and Spanish with saxophones and grit. The above video for “Wave of History” uses an infographic style of information delivery, illustrating the complicated history of our colony, from the forced African diaspora to wealth inequality, police brutality, and the genocide of Native Americans. They won’t let you just rock out and forget your problems; the whole point is to make you face the beautiful absurdity of our existence, and to turn it into fuel to fight against the enemies of humanity. But as great as they are on record, no description does their live show justice, so just trust us when we say that you need to get yourself to a Downtown Boys show as soon as humanly possible. It might just change your life.
Grimes — Art Angels
As much as we loved E*MO*TION, Grimes made the best pop album of the year, regardless of what your expectations were for her follow-up to Visions. She’s fully actualized as a producer, learning new instruments and expertly wielding the Grimes alter ego to further distance it from her own sense of self. She’s come to accept her limitations, acknowledging that she’s a great producer, but can use help mastering. And it’s only made her better and stronger. As usual, her videos are scatterbrained and hit-or-miss, but the jams on Art Angels are undeniable. Anime Jock Jam “Kill V. Maim’s” goth-cheerleader vibes are a definite highlight, but so are the songs driven by acoustic instruments, like “California” and “Easily.” And the verse from Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes on “SCREAM” is easily the wildest 16 we’ve heard all year.
Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp a Butterfly
It’s difficult to sum up what this record means in a year-end blurb, so we won’t try. But we echo the sentiments of the critical consensus in acknowledging that no other album came close to the complete and coherent vision of Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which effortlessly absorbs jazz, funk, and soul into a narrative package. It’s a story of the achievement of knowledge of self, the chrysalis of a caterpillar that turns into a butterfly. Ruminations on the experience of the black man in the United States are often quite complicated to unpack, and are likely best left to scholars more equipped to comprehend the effects of the sum total of our postcolonial existence.
But the part of Kendrick’s genius that is easiest to explain is his mastery of pop art. He can simultaneously appeal to the jazz nerds, the lyric-obsessed backpackers, the club rats, and even the dumb intrigued by the drum. He can write a concept album that flies over the heads of drunk revelers doing the best dabs and booty bounces, while still leaving behind a document with layer upon layer of subtext and powerful signifiers. All his bases are covered, but he’s not even playing the game. He leads, and everyone else follows. Part of the reason his verse on Big Sean’s “Control” was so controversial was because it exposed just how far away he had pulled from the rest of the field; no one is even remotely on his level. And as the various lukewarm response records proved, lesser rappers seem to have stopped trying. Can you blame them?