Top 10 Albums of 2015

Aah, the end of the year has come. 2015 has been a big year for music on pop radio and everywhere else. But amongst all the mixtape, singles, radio shows and slew of albums, ten stood out as the most enjoyable and memorable. What better way to cap off the year than to count them down. Let’s go!!!!

 

 

10. King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude (Pusha T)

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How boss is Pusha T? In a span of a month (the last month of 2015, mind you) the 38-year-old became the president of G.O.O.D. Music, continued to flex Adidas’ finest new footwear and dropped a full-length album that’s really a tease for his next project (King Push, due next year) but it’s actually one of the best albums of the year. Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude reminds the rap game that Push is one of the meanest MCs alive right now. “M.F.T.R.” has him bouncing along with quick quips (“No retirement plans, no Derek Jeters/ We all know I did it; Rodriguez”) while summing up the entire rap game (“Crutches, Crosses, Caskets”). But Pusha is as self-aware as rap has been this year, and Kendrick isn’t the only one who sees the danger for black people today (“Still a target, but the badge is the new noose/ Yeah, we all see it, but cellphones aren’t enough proof/ So we still lose”). Don’t keep us waiting, Push.

 

 

9. Uptown Special (Mark Ronson)

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If you’re like me and prefer a classic Ray Charles record over Rihanna’s latest, Mark Ronson was probably a saving grace to your music this year. Uptown Special is the Grammy-winning producer’s version of a throwback mixtape; taking the soulful sounds of the 60s, 70s and 80s into the 21st century with new artists. “Feel Right” with Mystikal (nice to have you back, sir) is the best James Brown song the Godfather never made, while “I Can’t Lose,” is a delightful burst of 80s funk. And of course, there’s “Uptown Funk,” Bruno Mars’ finest moment and the best hit song of 2015 (despite coming out in 2014). The swagger and bounce of the whole record is something sorely missed on the charts this year. DON’T BELEMME, JUST WATCH *CLAP*.

 

 

8. Tuxedo (Tuxedo)

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The team of producer Jake One and R&B singer Mayer Hawthorne turned out to be a match made in heaven in the most flat-out fun album of the year. The duo’s debut outing is everything anyone ever loved about Kool & the Gang, Zapp, Soul Train and the G-Funk that birthed West Coast rap. Stuff like “Do It,” “Watch the Dance,” and “So Good” are the epitome of “get up and dance” music that’s actually fun to dance to. The duo slows it down too, as “Two Wrongs” showcases Hawthorne smooth vocals beyond beyond a discount-Timberlake. More from these two, please.

 

 

7. Surf (Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment)

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Furthering proof the Chance the Rapper is one of the best thing to happen to rap in a long time, this free download mixes sunny jazz with bratty rap and soulful R&B to a near-perfect mix. Donnie Trumpet orchestrates everything like an experience rather than just a handful of test-runs. There’s spacey stuff to zone-out to (“Windows,” “Caretaker,”), stuff to bop around to (“Wanna Be Cool,” “Go,”) and just stuff that makes you feel good without the use of codeine. The best of the bunch is “Sunday Candy,” a joyous romp about the importance of identity told through Chance’s appreciation of his grandma. You won’t find that on any of Future’s mixtapes.

 

 

6. If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late (Drake)

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Who would’ve thought Drake could get so pissy and yet sound so great? Released as a surprise back in February as a retail mixtape (or as we used to call them, “albums”), Drizzy started his stellar 2015 by reminding people how he’s a really good rapper. With harder street beats courtesy of Boi-1da, Drake lays out how he’s already reached god status (“Legend”), reminds the rap game that he’s just fine with reminding the haters how awesome he is (“Used To,” featuring an on-point Lil Wayne) and made having woes seem like the most baller thing to have (“Know Yourself”). He makes room for guests like PARTYNEXTDOOR (“Wednesday Night Interlude”), but it’s The Drake Show all the way through. If you didn’t take Drake seriously, 2015 was probably the last chance you’d get to switch teams. Or not, he’s too high at the top to hear the haters anymore.

 

 

5. The Magic Whip (Blur)

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Hey look, a new album from a beloved alternative rock band that was actually awesome! With their first new album in 12 years, the Britpop legends managed to stay true to their colors to please fans (“Lonesome Street, “Ong Ong,” “Go Out,”) and craft a new sound to push forward with (“There Are Too Many Of Us,” “Ice Cream Man,” “New World Towers,”). The presence of guitarist Graham Coxon remains one of the driving forces of the band, fuzzing our the amp one song and gently strumming the next. Singer Damon Albarn is still a relatable introvert nearly 20 years since he debuted (“Is my terracotta heart breaking?/I don’t know if I’m losing you/If I’m losing you again”). Relax Damon, you and the boys have still got it.

 

 

4. Sound & Color (Alabama Shakes)

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After their 2012 Grammy-nominated debut made the world prick up its ear to their grimy yet soulful garage rock, Alabama Shakes decided to take their listeners on a far-out trip. The result is one of the heaviest, yet prettiest rock records of the year. The band stretches out their sound and lets things breathe on the title track, “Guess Who,” and the haunting closer “Over My Head.” But that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped making tracks that punch through the speakers, as heard on “Don’t Wanna Fight,” “Future People,” and “The Greatest.” If Etta James ever sang for The Black Keys, it would sound a lot like the Alabama Shakes.

 

 

3. Every Open Eye (Chvrches)

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If New Order was ever led by a feminist, it would sound a lot like Chvrches’ second album. The Scottish trio burst through 2015 with stadium-ready anthems about powering through the tough times and breaking from whatever shell people feel they’ve been trapped in. For lead singer Laruen Mayberry, it could be from a bad relationship in “Leave a Trace,” (“Take care to bury all that you can/Take care to leave a trace of a man”) or from the general boredom of daily life in “Make Them Gold” (“We are made of our longest days/We are falling but not alone”). “Clearest Blue” is like the best song from an indie rom-com soundtrack where Mayberry puts herself out and asks for her partner to meet her in the middle. Somehow Chvrches have taken confessional power pop and electro-alternative and made them meet in the middle.

 

 

2. Caracal (Disclosure)

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Most EDM music today sounds the same, gets boring quickly and has no worth or merit besides throwing your body into a sweaty heap. That said, there are some that see the potential of EDM and expand on it. Two of them are Guy and Howard Lawrence, the British brothers of Disclosure that turned dance music on its head with their 2013 debut Settle. This year they decided to make moodier, thicker and all around groovier music with their sophomore effort Caracal. The album title is named after a nocturnal African wild cat, which makes total sense with the songs sounding like that of a predator: sneaking up on the listener and hitting when it’s least expected. Songs like “Willing & Able,” “Masterpiece,” and “Superego” are slow-burners meant for intimate Netflix and Chill nights instead of sweaty grinding amongst neon lights, a welcomed change of pace in the EDM world. Fear not though, as the Lawrence brothers still know how to make floor two-stepping floor stompers with “Holding On,” “Jaded,” and “Echoes.” Disclosure combine thick bass lines with clapping drums that sync into delicious rhythm. They also have a great rolodex by bringing in the likes of Sam Smith, The Weeknd and Sam Smith to make things sweeter. Disclosure is dance music with REAL feeling put into it and Caracal makes them all the more interesting.

 

 

1. To Pimp A Butterfly (Kendrick Lamar)

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SURPRISE! Yeah but really, it’s been a long time since an album this poetic and timely has hit the music world. Kendrick’s sophomore effort is the Birdman of rap albums: something entirely different from the norm surrounding it, focuses on tension that constantly moves throughout the runtime, covers multiple topics of discussion prevalent in today’s culture and is the ultimate fly-on-the-wall experience. While Birdman was fly-on-the-wall for the world of theatre and actors, To Pimp A Butterfly gazes behind the curtain into the mindset of the man constantly being called “the greatest rapper alive.” That title can add a lot of pressure, turning into a drunken self-criticism on one’s own rocket to fame (“u”) or a kiss-off to the entire idea of ranking rappers (“Hood Politics”). Kendrick’s worried about being trapped as well, but from pleasure and pain. “These Walls” praises the trappings of sex (“If these walls could talk, they tell me to swim good….Walls telling me they full of pain, resentment..Me? I’m just a tenant”) and brings it all back to prison (“If your walls could talk, they’d tell you it’s too late/Your destiny accepted your fate…I resonate in these walls/I don’t know how long I can wait in these walls”). He’s damaged by the power of money (“Institutionalized”), shocked at how different he is from his home (“Momma”), and feels hypocritical partying like a gangster while being the new spokesman for black America (“The Blacker The Berry”). But To Pimp A Butterfly is also the sound of Kendrick finding himself in the midst of the madness, finding redemption in the darkest of times (“i”). He even takes a character known for being whipped and beaten and turns him into a term to state his pride (“King Kunta”). He calls out fakes (“I swore I wouldn’t tell/But most of y’all sharing bars/Like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell”) but inspires his fellow man (“Sky could fall down, wind could cry now/Look at me motherfucker I smile/ I LOVE MYSELF”). To Pimp A Butterfly deserves to be put in a time capsule; it feels like a snapshot of 2015.

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Albarn, Alone At Last

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It’s hard to buy the fact that “Everyday Robots” is Damon Albarn’s first official solo album. In Blur, his clever songwriting was the spirit of Britpop that bit its lip at surrounding English culture. While the Gorillaz were comprised of cartoon characters on paper, Albarn was behind the scenes building freaky sounds that merged alternative rock, world music, electronic music, and rap to make one of the weirdest pop formulas in recent memory (over 8 million albums sold worldwide). In fact, how many people who bought the self-titled debut album of his super group The Good, The Bad, and the Queen were Blur and Gorillaz fans? No matter what he’s involved himself in, whether that be singing pop music, producing for soul legend Bobby Womack, or composing operas based on the life of Elizabethan doctor John Dee, Damon Albarn has had the spotlight on him (whether he has wanted it or not). Perhaps all of that time in the bright light has made him focus on the blackness surrounding him, because he has certainly had his share of alienation.

            “Everyday Robots” is the most autobiographical piece of music Mr. Albarn has created since he first (reluctantly) pinched the sound of The Stone Roses 23 years ago. Described by Albarn as “folk-soul,” electronic instruments and piano loops are mixed with African drums and chants, while Albarn lays his heart out in an aching croon. The title track that opens the record is haunting, with the ever-observant Albarn seeing others “looking like standing stones,” as we drive aimlessly or tap away at our phones. He notes his faults in a relationship as he sits alone with his record player on “Lonely Press Play.” “The Selfish Giant” roams in spacey synthesizers with Albarn “waiting for the final call,” as he notes “it’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on.” The 7-minute “You & Me” is probably the darkest song here, where Albarn briefly sees heroin burn in tin foil as he waits to bleed out. However, another case could be made with “Hollow Pond,” where light picks of an acoustic guitar and an organ create a funeral-like mood for Albarn to mourn over his adolescence. Albarn is so vivid in his lyrics that the listener could close his eyes and see Albarn sitting next to him with his head buried in folded arms.

            Albarn and co-producer Richard Russell have created a rich but mournful setting through the sound on this record. There are more musical elements of Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad, and the Queen here than any of the bounce Blur had, but maybe that’s the point. Albarn, who has doubted the possibility of another Blur record since their reunion in 2008, has made so many musical left turns in his career that “Everyday Robots” plays like the biography of a completely different person than the man behind “Girls & Boys.” While it would be interesting to hear that cocky wiseass comment on the pop culture trends of today, this snapshot of Damon Albarn is fascinating from beginning to end. The music is modern and beautiful and the lyrics are full of dread and bare emotion, adding up to the British equivalent to Beck’s “Morning Phase,” which is just about 2 months older than this album. While this has a space-like atmosphere than Beck’s acoustic delivery, “Everyday Robots” is a fascinating look into the mind and heart of one of music’s modern renaissance men alone with his thoughts.

Final Verdict: 5 out of 5 stars