The Best Albums of 2015: What Got Left Out
This January I posted a ranked list of the best albums of 2015. The rankings, which can be viewed here, were determined with a mathematical formula aggregating year-end lists from some of the most respected music blogs and magazines. An album's "score" was based on how many of those individual published lists it could be found on, as well as its ranking on each. As a result, my list didn’t represent my personal opinions on which albums were the best of the year. Albums like Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s Surf and Future’s DS2 wouldn’t have made the cut if I’d been calling the shots instead of my algorithm. The opposite is also true—there are a handful of albums I personally believe were among the best of 2015 that didn’t make their way onto this mathematical list. Here are my personal top 10 albums from 2015 that deserved recognition. While the top 50 list strove for objectivity, this time I’m embracing subjectivity. Some of these albums fell short of making the cut by a narrow margin, some weren’t met with the critical fanfare I felt they deserved, and others were just too under the radar to make it onto an aggregated list.
Bomba Estéreo - Amanecer
English speaking artists all but monopolize the global music industry, so it’s impressive that Colombian electro dance band Bomba Estéreo has even made a dent in the US market. It’s even more impressive that they were able to land a rap feature from Will Smith on the remix of Amanecer’s biggest song, “Fiesta,” the video for which has garnered millions of views on YouTube. But even though the band is known for party songs like “Fiesta,” this album really shines when the dance party winds down. More than their previous work, Amanecer favors stripped-down songwriting over adrenaline-fueled anthems. The result is a deceptively sophisticated album that sets its dance party on a secluded twilit beach instead of in a sold out nightclub.
The Dead Weather - Dodge and Burn
The Dead Weather are probably the greatest supergroup in rock right now. They’re one of the most versatile quartets in the business, with all four members playing double duty and swapping instruments semiregularly. The band consists of Alison Mosshart of The Kills on lead vocals, 21st century rock god Jack White on drums, Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age on lead guitar, and Jack Lawrence (known for bands like The Greenhornes, The Raconteurs, and City and Colour) on bass. Dodge and Burn stays true to The Dead Weather’s gritty sound rooted in blues, heavy rock, and garage rock, and features some of their most exciting songs yet.
Ibeyi - Ibeyi
Ibeyi’s eponymous debut deals primarily with death, something the duo is unfortunately pretty familiar with. The French-Cuban twins use the album to memorialize both their father (famous Cuban percussionist Angá Díaz) who died the better part of a decade ago, and their older sister Yanira, who passed away more recently. Their music is a captivating blend of Afro-Cuban and Western influences, perhaps best encapsulated by vocals that are sung both in English and Yoruba. It’s tough to distill Ibeyi's sound into a succinct list of influences since it's so diverse and unique, but the twins have described themselves as being heavily influenced by Frank Ocean, James Blake, and King Krule (easily one of the hippest possible shortlists of inspirations). On Ibeyi (which is the Yoruba word for “twins”) they explore the juncture between downtempo beatmaking and traditional Afro-Cuban stylings.
The Internet - Ego Death
It’s tough to put a label on The Internet. The band’s members are a ragtag assortment of twentysomethings from a variety of musical backgrounds. The group was formed by producers Syd Tha Kyd (lead vocals) and Matt Martians (keyboards), both members of the hip-hop collective Odd Future. However, it’s full of other talented musicians, including the younger brother of the omnipresent bass wizard Thundercat. The only thing people can seem to agree on about this album is how good it is. Other than that, the debates are still raging on: is it R&B? Is it acid jazz? Is it electronica? Hip-hop? Neo soul? Funk? Trip hop? Urban contemporary—whatever that is? The Internet’s music has been described as each of these things at one point or another, but in reality it’s all of them and it’s none of them. Ego Death gives us a glimpse into the dissolution of genre barriers that’s slowly becoming the sound of the future; in fact, its opening track “Get Away” was included in a New York Times piece titled “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going.”
Jack Ü - Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü
When I first caught wind of the collaborative Skrillex and Diplo project known as Jack Ü, my reaction was lukewarm at best. I gave it a cursory listen but pretty quickly abandoned it, despite having always respected the two musicians. An entire song of 2 Chainz rapping “yeah, I’m the shit / I should have Febreze on me?” No thank you. Yet another Justin Bieber feature? I’ll pass, thanks. The most interesting thing about the project seemed to be the two DJs’ weird umlaut fetish. But after the album started receiving consistent critical acclaim I felt obliged to give it a more committed listen, and what I found the second time around was a fascinating slice of postmodern dance music. All flavors of dance music are weighted equally here: dancehall, trap, radio-friendly EDM, dubstep—everything is treated as a worthy ingredient in one big Whitman’s Sampler. Even the Justin Bieber track, “Where Are Ü Now,” turned out to be one of the year’s best dance records. From its massive radio singles to its hidden gems, this album is a compact State of the Music address from two of the world’s biggest DJs.
Joey Bada$$ - B4.Da.$$
There might be “better” rap albums from 2015 that didn’t make the aggregated list. Lupe Fiasco fans will swear by his album. Mac Miller fans will swear by his. But B4.Da.$$ (pronounced “Before the Money,” unlike his name which is pronounced “Badass”) represents something more significant than those albums. Lupe’s lyricism is as intricate as ever, but his holier-than-though pontifications have started growing wearisome. Mac Miller is good at what he does, but his brand of rap sometimes feels like a glorified tangent in the evolution of hip-hop. Meanwhile, Bada$$ is reviving the beloved east coast hip-hop sound of the 1990s in an era when bicoastal hip-hop is a thing of the distant past (it’s hard to deny that Kendrick Lamar has been “juggling both coasts with one hand” for years now). And he made this album when he was only 19, so unlike Lupe Fiasco and Mac Miller, his entire career is still ahead of him. B4.Da.$$ might be messy, as Bada$$ is still trying to find his voice, but overall it’s a promising debut that bodes well for not only his career but the revival of east coast rap.
Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material
Kacey Musgraves’ Pageant Material almost made it into the bottom spot on the aggregated list, but lost to Dr. Dre’s Compton on a technicality. When I ran them through my algorithm the two albums came out with identical mathematical scores (which was already highly unlikely), and the tiebreaker was to determine which album made it onto more of the year-end lists that the data was compiled from. Compton was on exactly one more list than Pageant Material, and so it snagged the #50 spot and nudged Musgraves' album out of the running. There’s a legitimate argument for Musgraves’ sophomore album as one of the top albums of 2015, and in all fairness it did receive a good deal of praise—Spin even ranked it #8 on their year-end list. Pageant Material continues the playfully breezy wordplay of Same Trailer Different Park, her debut album that saw her take the torch from Taylor Swift as the latter made the leap from country to pop. This time around she might not cover much new ground, but she’s got enough fresh ideas for songs that it still feels unique. Plus, “who’s to say if I’m a 9.5 or a 4.0 if you don’t even know me?” is one of the most satisfying lyrics of the year.
Ryan Adams - 1989
There’s no doubt this is a polarizing album. If you’re one of the people who cared enough to listen to it in the first place, then you probably either swear by it or are sick of it by now. 1989 is a track for track cover album of Taylor Swift’s Grammy winning album by the same title. In the Max Martin era of polished symmetrical pop, it’s easy to forget that these massive hits are more than just well-crafted records. Adams brings out the songs beneath the production and lets them breathe, framing them in a setting that he describes as somewhere between Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder. The best covers don’t step on the original record's toes or force a direct comparison; they pay homage to a song while showcasing an ability to unlock something dormant in it that we never knew was there. From that perspective, Ryan Adams has created a near-perfect cover album.
Tobias Jesso Jr. - Goon
Tobias Jesso Jr. is a fantastic singer-songwriter who towers over his contemporaries, in more ways than one. (Promotional posters for his debut album Goon read in large print: “You can’t miss Tobias Jesso Jr.” followed by a line break and then, “He’s six foot seven.”) He’s a surprisingly flexible musician; he can help pen modern pop hits like Adele’s “When We Were Young” and Sia’s “Alive” from behind the scenes, and then turn around and write a collection of 60s- and 70s-inspired indie folk songs for himself. On top of writing and singing all of the songs here, he also plays guitar, bass, and piano on the recordings. Goon is a vulnerable debut that marks Tobias Jesso Jr. as one of the most promising songwriters around.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Multi-Love
This is bar none one of my favorite albums from 2015. Unknown Mortal Orchestra were previously known for their low-key indie rock, but Multi-Love pulls the band into the realm of retro psychedelic soul. The lyrics usually play second fiddle to the music—Multi-Love is all about vibrations—but the album’s subject matter is just as captivating as its sonic landscapes. It’s a loose concept album about a polyamorous relationship between frontman Ruban Nielson, his wife, and a third woman who eventually left the couple, leaving the two of them heartbroken and "alone." The spacey project features lyrics like “we eat crickets in the future / just tastes like ‘far-from-home,’” and colors so vivid they could trigger latent synesthesia. Don’t let first impressions convince you that this is a two-dimensional album that favors psychedelic vibes over artful songwriting. Yes, Multi-Love wins the award for “most likely to be listened to by somebody who owns a lava lamp,” but it’s also a rich cache of musical complexity if you take the time to dive in.