My Favorite Albums of 2015
I spent roughly 19 full days of 2015 listening to music—about 28,000 minutes—at least, according to Spotify’s calculations. I’m fortunate enough to have a job where I can listen to music pretty much all day, and 2015 was a good year for that, with tons of great new albums. There are plenty that deserve a mention, but here are eight of my favorites from the year: (Note: I wrote about a few of these for RELEVANT’s top albums list, and I borrowed a bit from a handful of those writeups for this.)
Here’s a Spotify playlist of even more of my favorites:
8. Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear
Sincerity is not Josh Tillman’s strong point. The former Fleet Foxes drummer is known for his biting, cynical wit. He’s basically a master-level musical Internet troll. (Case in point: his cover of Ryan Adams’ cover of Taylor Swift).
But on I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman gives listeners glimpses of heartfelt sincerity in the form of love songs to his new wife, Emma. “I can hardly believe I found you / and I’m terrified by that,” he sings on “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me.” It’s a rare window to the sentimental heart beneath the cynic.
However, Tillman’s biting sarcasm is still in full force on songs like “Holy Shit,” “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow” and “Bored in the USA,” on which he sings “Save us President Jesus!” On “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt,” he mocks the vanity and vapidity of a girl he goes home with from a bar. But, in the music video, he plays both parts, suggesting that perhaps what he hates about the girl is what she reveals about himself.
FJM’s solo debut, Fear Fun, was a tale of drugs and debauchery. I Love You, Honeybear is the story of someone falling in love—but still dealing with their vices.
Favorite Track: "I Went to the Store One Day.” Purely because of this video:
7. Leon Bridges: Coming Home
Leon Bridges sounds like he wandered onto a time machine in a ’50s or ’60s Motown studio and somehow landed in 2015. His music and style has prompted comparisons to R&B greats like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. You’d never guess that Bridges is only 26.
If you played Coming Home in a room with your parents, your 85-year-old grandma and your 5-year-old cousin, everyone would start dancing. Complete with doo-wop background vocals and saxophone melodies, his debut album is nostalgic and familiar, but still sounds fresh.
Bridges is proving that the tried and true still works. And it’s irresistible.
Favorite Track: "Smooth Sailing"
6. Tame Impala: Currents
Fueled by synths and driving bass lines, Currents isn’t really rock, but it doesn’t fit neatly into the electronica genre, either. What it is: trippy ballads about being lonely, making mistakes and moving on. The tempos range from slow jams to driving dance beats—the beginning of “The Less I Know the Better” will have you bobbing your head.
Lyrically, there’s nothing too groundbreaking. It’s a breakup album, with simple truths put simply: “I know that I'll be happier / And I know you will too / Eventually” and, my favorite, “They say, ‘People never change,’ but that’s bullshit / They do.” But couched in masterful production and Kevin Parker’s beautiful falsetto, it’s something entirely unique.
Favorite Track: “The Less I Know the Better.” "Let it Happen"
5. Lord Huron: Strange Trails
According to Spotify’s “Year in Music” feature, I listened to Lord Huron more than any other artist this year. Part of that probably came from the fact that I saw them live this summer—I always listen to an artist a lot before I see them live, and a lot after, too, if it’s a good show (and it was a great show). But it also is because this album is wonderfully well done from start to finish.
Usually, I choose a handful of favorite tracks off an album after a few listens and then rarely go back to listen to the full album. But both musically and lyrically, Strange Trails is such a seamless whole that you end up listening to the full album before you’ve even realized it. A folksy ghost story of sorts, the album deals with love, loneliness, mortality and the secret fears in all of us. “I don’t want to be the only one living if all of my friends are gone” lead singer Ben Schneider sings on “Frozen Pines.”
Favorite Tracks: "Hurricane (Johnnie's Theme)," "Fool for Love"
4. Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color
Put the best rock albums of the last five decades in a blender, pour and serve with a modern twist, and you have Alabama Shakes. The band came out of the gate strong with their 2012 debut album, and their sophomore effort builds on their timeless sound, with influences from the slightly psychedelic (“Future People,” “Gemini”) to soul funk (“Don’t Wanna Fight,” “Miss You”) to punk (“The Greatest”). It’s all brought together by frontwoman Brittany Howard’s powerful, unique voice.
Top to bottom, it’s a delight. Just try to listen to “Don’t Wanna Fight” without moving along to the funky guitar riff, and you’ll see what I mean.
Favorite Track: "Don't Wanna Fight"
3. Grimes: Art Angels
In hindsight, I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I found Grimes’ 2012 album, Visions, kind of cloying. This one, however, hooked me in from the first listen. I could not get “Flesh Without Blood” out of my head for about a week straight.
Grimes (aka Claire Boucher) is perhaps the hardest-working musician out there. She told The Fader that she wrote about 100 songs that didn’t even make it onto her latest album. She also played and engineered every single part on the album, mastering a slew of new instruments while she was recording.
The result is pure pop perfection, with dance beats and sugary melodies that stick in your head like cotton candy. On Art Angels more than on Visions, Boucher’s vocal range is on full display. She moves from light and girly to all-out screaming, sometimes within the same track (see: “Kill V. Maim”).
Art Angels is Grimes’ most accessible album so far, but it’s still determinedly and delightfully weird—and entirely enjoyable.
Favorite Track: "Flesh Without Blood"
2. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly
2015 was the first year I really got into hip-hop, and it was a great year to do so. Even in a year with a long list of great rap releases, Kendrick’s is decidedly one of the most important, redemptive and groundbreaking of 2015—and probably ever.
Kendrick’s 2012 album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, was a memoir of sorts—depicting his experience growing up deep in the gang culture of Compton. The album changed the hip-hop game and brought Kendrick into the national spotlight—and that doesn’t seem to be a place he is particularly comfortable. His follow up, To Pimp a Butterfly, is a confessional of a man struggling with fame, responsibility, temptation and identity.
While other artists devote lyrics to bragging about their skills and accomplishments, Kendrick is more apt to confess his wrongdoings and insecurities. “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” he admits on “The Blacker the Berry.” "I remember you was conflicted," he says in a recurring spoken word poem. "Misusing your influence / Sometimes I did the same / Abusing my power full of resentment / Resentment that turned into a deep depression / Found myself screaming in a hotel room / I didn’t want to self-destruct.”
He journeys from self-empowerment (“King Kunta,” “i”) to the verge of the self-destruction he fears (“u”); from raging against institutional racism (“Institutionalized,” “The Blacker the Berry”) to relating a story in which he angrily refuses to give a homeless man a dollar, only to discover that the man is Jesus in disguise (“How Much a Dollar Cost”).
Tying it together in the middle of the album is “Alright,” which became an anthem of sorts for the Black Lives Matter movement and civil unrest this year. On the track, Kendrick once again admits his own failings, but reminds himself—and listeners—“I’m f***** up, homie, you f***** up / But If God got us then we gonna be alright.” Coming immediately after the gut-wrenching, yelling, crying breakdown on “u,” it’s not a platitude—it’s a powerful reminder.
To Pimp a Butterfly is not for the faint of heart (those who balk at explicit lyrics will probably want to skip this one). It’s heavy and heady, but it’s also incredibly important—if more so for the questions it asks than the answers it delivers.
Favorite Track: "Alright"
1. Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell
It's hard to find a songwriter who has been as honest about grief as Sufjan Stevens. His song "Casimir Pulaski Day" off 2005’s Illinois is one of the only songs that has made me cry. It would definitely be on my list of favorite songs of all time if I were not way too indecisive to ever make such a list.
But while “Casimir Pulaski Day,” would likely fall in the fiction section along with much of Sufjan’s extensive catalog, Carrie & Lowell is something else entirely—part memoir, part therapy session. “This is not my art project; this is my life,” Sufjan told Pitchfork.
On the album, Sufjan reflects on the death of his mother, Carrie. Growing up, Sufjan rarely got to spend time with Carrie—who struggled with depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism and substance abuse for most of her life. After her death in 2012, Sufjan was left grieving the loss of a figure he hardly knew, but who dramatically shaped him nonetheless. So, naturally, he turned to music to process.
“It nearly destroyed me, because I still couldn't make sense out of it,” he told Pitchfork (really, you should just go read that interview). “In writing about it on this album, I was in pursuit of meaning, of justice, of reconciliation. It wasn't very fun.”
The result is a heartbreakingly beautiful and personal lament that shows Sufjan struggling with loss, regret, faith and woundedness. Musically, it’s a return to Stevens’ folksy early days, but even more stripped down—with sparse instrumentation complementing simple, sometimes haunting melodies. It’s become my go-to album for rainy days and sad moods, and I love every track (though it has extended my list of “songs that made me cry”).
Favorite Track: It’s hard to choose, because it changes with every few listens. Right now, I’m fond of “Eugene” and “The Only Thing,” because when I saw Sufjan live and heard him sing, “I just wanted to be near you” and “Everything I feel returns to you somehow / I want to save you from your sorrow,” they were some of the most beautifully moving concert moments I’ve ever experienced.