At this point, it’s pretty tough to remember any album being released this year other than Adele’s record-smashing 25. But, 2015 was actually an excellent year for music across the board.
Pop was more clever and nuanced than it has been in a long time, indie-folk took a bit of a back seat and made room in the Top 40 for amazing releases in hip hop, rock and electronic music. Many artists made sharply different work than they have in the past — musicians were taking chances, and many of them were paying off.
That being said, an abundance of great work makes it even harder to create a "Best of" list of any kind — it’s a mammoth task to filter through a year’s worth of content and pick only a handful of worthy winners. So, after hours of listening, note taking, internal arguments, external arguments and some naps, it is with mixed emotion I present my Top 15 albums of 2015:
15. Rhodes — Wishes
The debut effort, Wishes, from U.K. singer-songwriter Rhodes, is one of those sneaky albums that ends up with 200 plays on your iTunes without you even realizing it.
Wishes isn’t necessarily a show-stopper at first listen, but as the songs become more familiar, their intricacies — both lyrically and musically — start to shine through. It’s a moody affair, with the majority of songs living in a sort of damp, bass-filled haze, but, the choruses often offer bright, cinematic moments that provide a much-needed balance.
14. The Maccabees — Marks To Prove It
It's no secret that London-based quintet the Maccabees had a difficult time recording Marks To Prove It — the album took nearly four years to complete — and while there is some sense of that struggle in the diversity of the songs, what resulted was a gritty, intense and beautifully eclectic record.
The opening track, Marks to Prove It, starts things off with an energetic bang, and one that is not replicated again on the album. It’s been said this record is meant to document a night out on the town, and as the tracks progress, that becomes easily applicable — the natural arc of a typical night out fits perfectly, including the middle lull around two in the morning expressed with a trio of light but fulfilling moments in Silence, River Song and Slow Sun.
Each track on Marks To Prove It is stunningly different, but the rawness of the lyrics and vocals connect the dots, making it a cohesive pop-rock masterpiece.
13. Joanna Newsom — Divers
California harpist Joanna Newsom sounds like she comes from another time on her album Divers; clavichords, lush strings and harp are paired with lyrics dense with metaphor as she works her way through the ideas of death, mortality and time. Even her style of singing — precise, enunciated — gives off a classical feel.
Newsom is playful as well, though, and injects an endearing charm into her work that is only amplified by her poetic songwriting; "Here, the light will seep/and the scythe will reap/and spirit will rend/in counting toward the end," Newsom’s twinkling voice croons on Leaving the City.
Because her work is so weighty, Divers takes some time to even partially understand, but it’s absolutely worth the work.
12. Carly Rae Jepsen — E•MO•TION
Canadian pop maven Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION is everything good about ’80s pop filtered through modern ears. There’s no law that says all fun music must be immediately discounted as fluff, and E•MO•TION is the perfect example of this. Yes, it is catchy as hell and, at times, can even veer into cheesy territory, but Jepsen is and has always been a stellar pop songwriter, especially when paired with the likes of Sia, Devonte Hynes and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, among others.
Don’t write her off because of Call Me Maybe; E•MO•TION is leaps and bounds ahead of that single — it’s a dance album with substance, and one that is full of humour, sweetness, sadness and sassiness.
11. Justin Bieber — Purpose
It’s really easy to hate Justin Bieber — he’s done a lot of stupid things and his music has been average at best. Purpose marks a huge change for the better.
Bieber enlisted the help of all-star producers such as Skrillex, Diplo and even Kanye West, and with their guidance, Purpose actually feels like it has a purpose. The beats are catchy, inventive and intriguing, and the songwriting has grown exponentially — from barely grazing the surface to exploring some actual deep feelings; "I want to be your boyfriend" to "Am I in love with you? Or am I in love with the feeling?"
It may be time to give J. Biebs a break — if Purpose is a sign of things to come, you can save me a seat on the Belieber bandwagon.
10. Alabama Shakes — Sound & Color
Faced with the dreaded second album slump, roots-rock outfit Alabama Shakes blew away all expectations with their sophomore release, Sound & Color.
The Shakes don’t shy away from their blues background, but they also don’t allow themselves to be pigeon-holed into that genre, either, as they successfully dive deep into uncharted waters with soft, dreamy tracks such as Gemini and the title track, Sound & Color.
Singer Brittany Howard may be one the best vocalists on the scene right now, and this album makes no qualms about showing that off; her transitions from soulful, smooth melodies to a full-out blues rasp are jaw-dropping.
9. Drake — If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
Though calling this album a "mixtape" is questionable at best, that’s pretty much the only complaint filed at Drake’s 17-song epic, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.
Drake has the uncanny ability to remain relatable regardless of what he’s rapping about — we’re able to celebrate his highs and wallow in his lows despite the fact his types of highs and lows are likely very different from our own. But, really, this is an album focused on complaints and anxieties, two things everyone faces, every day.
While If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is less shiny and poppy than his past releases — or even his current smash single, Hotline Bling — it still holds a certain amount of accessibility for those who aren’t necessarily the most die-hard hip-hop fans. He crosses genres and fan-bases flawlessly, and has more than a million copies sold to prove it.
8. Bjork — Vulnicura
Vulnicura is probably Bjork’s most approachable work to date. At its core, it’s a breakup album; she explores the stages of a relationship on the brink of failure — the tense moments before the break, the confused moments after, and the eventual healing.
Vulnicura is lush in all aspects; the arrangements are full of soaring strings and intense beats, with Bjork’s vocals waffling between dancing in the background and aggressively standing in the forefront. Bjork has an incredibly impressive voice, both in tone and power, and stripped down (relatively speaking, of course) Vulnicura is the perfect vessel to showcase that.
7. Tame Impala — Currents
Tame Impala, the psychedelic brainchild of Aussie multi-instrumentalist and producer Kevin Parker, took a turn to a softer side with Currents.
The layers of bright and airy synths and sharp drums ebb and flow as Parker’s falsetto vocals wash overtop, a stark contrast from his previously grungier work. There is a clear, but unexpected, influence of Motown and disco, though the lyrical content is decidedly less sunny as Parker examines personal change in the context of a romantic relationship.
There is a lot of heartbreak on Currents, and the hazy, floating vocals only help encourage a mournful interpretation. It’s a satisfying sadness, though; there’s something very cathartic to dancing to lines such as, "There’s no future left for you and me/I was holding and I was searching endlessly/But baby, now there’s nothing left that I can do."
6. Tobias Jesso Jr. — Goon
Canadian singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr. garnered a lot of praise for his debut LP, Goon.
It was shortlisted for the 2015 Polaris Music Prize and had fans such as superstar singer Adele tweeting about it (Jesso went on to pen songs with Adele for her record-breaking album, 25). And it’s all for good reason — Goon is a nugget of piano-rock gold that sounds like it was ripped right out of 1975. Between Jesso’s sweet and delicate voice, his lovelorn lyrics of times gone by and romances lost, and even his chord progressions and arrangements, the retro vibe pours out of every song in the best possible way.
Simply put, it’s a beautiful record, from beginning to end.
5. Sufjan Stevens — Carrie & Lowell
Well, it wasn’t the next instalment of his state project, but that’s probably for the best considering the album Sufjan Stevens did release, Carrie & Lowell, is a stunning collection of heartbreaking songs provoked by the death of his estranged mother, Carrie.
Death is certainly an overriding theme, but the twinkling guitars, hazy vocals and whispered harmonies inject an almost impossible beauty into his sadness..
4. Sleater-Kinney — No Cities To Love
After a 10-year hiatus, Portland, Ore.-based rock trio Sleater-Kinney haven’t missed a beat. No Cities To Love doesn’t necessarily feel like a comeback album, but a fun and powerful collection of songs from three super-cool ladies with nothing to prove to anybody.
Each track charges through with an anthemic energy, tackling topics from capitalism and fame to their relationships with each other. Every note seems pointed and deliberate, and even in the chaos of upbeat, dangling melodies and Corin Tucker’s unmistakable wail of a voice, there is still an overarching feel of focus and undeniable confidence.
3. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp a Butterfly
To Pimp a Butterfly is a bit of a contradictory listening experience. It’s simultaneously a lively, danceable album and one that delves into deep and dark lyrical territory surrounding race relations, unjust politics and Lamar’s own internal struggles with his fame and success.
Musically, To Pimp a Butterfly is an incredibly adventurous undertaking, bringing in flavours from myriad different genres; from the jazzy saxophones on Alright to the bass-heavy funk beats in King Kunta, each song takes on its own life but remains a cohesive part of the whole.
There is an uneasiness to it, though, as there should be given the heaviness of the lyrical content and the uncertainty that seems to plague Lamar as he explores those themes. Any optimism turns sour, almost haunting, as the melodies drift into bleary, horror-movie-esque tones as he searches for answers that may not exist.
2. Adele – 25
It was no surprise to anyone that Adele managed to put together a stellar album, but it’s fair to say no one was expecting it to be as amazing as it is.
With her third release, 25, Adele takes a step away from the non-stop depressed, heartbreak-ridden anthems of 21 and ups the ante, crafting a collection of thoughtful and diverse songs that showcase all the tastiest nooks and crannies of her unbelievable voice.
It’s clear she is in a different place in her life and it is serving her well; there is less anxiety and self-doubt and more confidence as she reflects on the transition into adulthood. Her songs almost seem beyond her years; as she reflects on her youth and times gone by it’s easy to forget she’s a mere 27 years old. She’s hardly in her golden years, but she had the Midas touch when creating 25.
1. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
Father John Misty is a weird guy, but he’s a weird guy who knows how to write an amazing song.
On I Love You, Honeybear, he explores the ideas of love, marriage and monogamy in a way that shines a light on his incredible wit and subtle hilarity, his self-loathing and his sarcasm, but also his softness and vulnerability.
Misty (otherwise known as Josh Tillman of Fleet Foxes fame) is a storyteller in the truest sense of the word, building odd and wonderful narratives told with style and swagger, and his ability to flawlessly combine an overt cynicism and an unapologetic romantic streak is what makes him the intriguing artist that he is.
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
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