Our Favorite Albums of 2015

You’ve listened to some, but have you heard the best? Let Fly help you out with our list of 2015’s best albums – in no particular order.

To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is at the top of everyone’s list this year, and even though this list is in no particular order, it’s at the top of ours, too. Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly is the most important hip-hop album released in the past decade and features some superstar producers and musicians, including some names that will appear again on this list (Kamasi Washington, Knxwledge, Flying Lotus), providing some of the classiest beats in hip-hop this year to fuel Kendrick’s socially conscious opus. The album has garnered 11 Grammy nominations including Album of the Year and Song of the Year for “Alright.”

Divers – Joanna Newsom

At this point, a new Joanna Newsom album dropping should require a national holiday for everyone to sit home and try to cope. That might seem extreme, but with Newsom seemingly content to drop masterpieces every half-decade, we’ve got the time to make this happen. Divers is a dense album, of course, but thankfully not as dense as the still-great 2010 behemoth Have One On Me. A pop album this is not, but songs like the nearly prog-feeling “Leaving the City” seem like a tiptoe toward mass cultural acceptance, quote-unquote “annoying voice” be damned. That same voice narrated Paul Thomas Anderson’s mostly insane Inherent Vice this year, so mass cultural acceptance might be coming sooner than expected. Until then, jams like “Sapokanikan” and “Time, As a Symptom” will keep me warm, hoping for something great in 2020. -Kevin Stairiker

Art Angels – Grimes

Grimes is the stage name of Claire Boucher, a Canadian musician who does generally unclassifiable things in the broad genre of “electronic music.” Her fourth studio album, Art Angels, is simultaneously slick and rough; fun and scary; radio-friendly and bewildering. The single, “Flesh Without Blood,” is perfect alt-dance pop – a sky-high hook played against quietly chugging guitars and skittering beats. The bouncy-shouty “Kill v. Maim” is another instant dance floor classic. Dig deeper into the album, though, and you’re in for some truly wonderful weirdness – plus guest spots from Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes and the always fascinating Janelle Monae. -Jed Reinert

Star Wars – Wilco

Another Star Wars came out this year. The guys from Wilco are back with what is possibly their best album since 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Just check out songs like “Random Name Generator” and “Pickled Ginger.” Mike Andrelczyk


In Colour – Jamie XX

Jamie XX of The XX put a solid solo effort this year and it belongs on any “Best of the Year” list. In Colour is full of club-ready EDM and downtempo tracks for after the club. – Mike Andrelczyk


Morning/Evening – Four Tet

Four Tet’s Morning/Evening features two tracks ranging about 20 minutes each of downtempo electronica. Both tracks feature samples from the Indian vocalist Lata Mangeshar, complex digital drum patterns and psychedelic synth effects – Mike Andrelczyk


Elaenia – Floating Points

Sam Shephered – the 29-year old UK based DJ (with a PhD in neuroscience) whoi performs under the name Floating Points released his official debut this year. Elaenia is full of downtempo house beats, jazzy Rhodes keys, synth effects and ambient sounds. It has enough electronica to be comparable with Four Tet and enough jazz to go toe-to-toe with Kamasi Washington. – Mike Andrelczyk

Lost Themes – John Carpenter

To be honest, I don’t think anyone expected or felt they needed an album from the great John Carpenter in 2015. Carpenter has long been underrated for his soundtrack work on his own films – not just for the immortal Halloween, but also for standouts like Escape from New York and Assault on Precinct 13. However, Lost Themes delights in a warm and expected way. These are dark, moody instrumental pieces that would fit well in his ‘70s and ‘80s classics. Walking down the street at night listening to “Obsidian” or “Mystery” will make you feel like you’re in a horror film of your own design, soundtracked by the master himself. -Kevin Stairiker

Sound + Color – Alabama Shakes

Polished and pissed off, Alabama Shakes’ sophomore album delivered just as much, if not more, as its first. – Blayne Waterloo

I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty

Josh Tillman, the once and future Father John Misty, may be the songwriter of the year. After a quick cup of coffee in Fleet Foxes and his solo debut album under the new moniker in 2012, I Love You, Honeybear dropped like a bomb in February. Containing a multitude of genres and feelings all centered on the terrifying realization of potential true love, the lyrics are what really shines on the album. Consider a couplet like this from “Bored in the USA,” a treatise on the current revision of the American dream:

“Oh, they gave me a useless education and a subprime loan/On a Craftsman home/Keep my prescriptions filled and now I can’t get off/But I can kind of deal with being bored in the USA/Save me President Jesus, I’m bored in the USA”

Sarcastic, ironic and all-together masterful, Tillman matches his superb lyrics with Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson-level musical arrangements that bring the album to “essential” status. -Kevin Stairiker

The Epic – Kamasi Washington

The name of the album isn’t hyperbole – The Epic is 3+ hours of progressive, experimental funk and soul jazz. – Mike Andrelczyk

Every Open Eye – CHVRCHES

For some reason, I ignored CHVRCHES at first. The synth-pop band’s 2013 debut, The Bones of What You Believe, just washed over me without sinking in at all. This year, though, I rectified that by deep-diving into the massive pop sugar-rush of Every Open Eye. There are echoes of the ’80s here for sure – “Clearest Blue” might as well be an outtake from a Vince Clarke-era Depeche Mode album – but this album still sounds perfectly modern. The sweeping rush of “Never Ending Circles” might be one of this year’s greatest pop music moments. -Jed Reinert


Hud Dreems – KNX

Knxledge is the most prolific hip-hop producer you’ve probably never heard of. He has released somewhere around 3 million (actually 69) albums on Bandcamp, but Hud Dreems is his Stones Throw Records debut. – Mike Andrelczyk

You’re Not Doing it Right – Ton-Taun [Lancaster]

There’s a certain beauty in watching the chaotic choreography of six bandmates interact with each other on a small stage – almost a dance of anarchic instrumentation. 

Catching FeelsShawan & the Wonton [Harrisburg]

Listen to Shawan Rice sing the opening notes to her song “Daddy Issues,” and you’re struck by a voice that seems well past her age of 20 years.

b’lieve i’m goin down – Kurt Vile

This guy’s got life figured out. If you’re looking for an album reminiscent of ’90s Dandy Warhols, whip out your army jacket and combat boots, because this is the one for you. – Blayne Waterloo

The World We Chose To SeeSeasonal [Lancaster]

The video for “State Lines” perfectly illustrates Ethan McDonnell’s melancholy lyrics – driving through the countryside while contemplating lost love.

You’re Dead! – Flying Lotus

FlyLo had his fingerprints all over the biggest album of the year, To Pimp a Butterfly, and he could’ve stopped there. Instead, he released his most successful and approachable album yet and featured great verses by Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg. – Kevin Stairiker

Currents – Tame Impala

Aussie Kevin Parker has shed any trappings of leading a band with Currents, playing every instrument on the record himself and recording it all in his home studio. It’s a perfectionist masterpiece, as the lo-fi guitar psychedelia in Tame Impala’s past gives way almost entirely to a glossy sheen of meticulously crafted synth tones and drum loops. There was a time when a dancefloor-friendly Tame Impala record would’ve seemed a laughable impossibility. But here it is, and it’s great. -Jed Reinert

DS2 – Future

Poor Future. After finally hitting the big time, he found out that popularity and fame can actually be a bad thing. Whether or not Future would trade it all back, DS2 revels in the dark and light sides of hip-hop superstardom. Between extolling the values of rich sex and serving the base, Future howls about his addictions (drugs, sex, these streets) and pains (losing former fiancee Ciara, Gucci flip-flops) on grimy, hard beats, all the while seemingly keeping up the façade of musical dominance. Of the five(!) albums Future helped put out in the last year, DS2 was the moment when he proved “Move That Dope” was not an accident. -Kevin Stairiker

Thunderbitch – Thunderbitch

It’s Brittany Howard unleashed in the debut album for her side project. – Blayne Waterloo

Yours, Dreamily – The Arcs

This Black Keys side project was initially meant to be a solo outing for Dan Auerbach, but morphed into a full band. This album is a loving exploration of the boundaries between garage rock and classic soul, from Philly to Memphis. And to think it was all recorded in less than two weeks! – Jed Reinert

Beach Music – Alex G

I’ve had the privilege to see Alex G grow as a musician and performer in his years climbing the Philly music ladder, which makes Beach Music all the more smile-inducing. Playing shows in living rooms, churches and batting cages, Alex G commands a rapt audience while culling songs from a songbook eight albums deep. On his latest, Beach Music, he expands the experimentation he played with on last year’s excellent DSU. I wouldn’t have expected Prince-style vocal pitch-shifting and musical gender-bending, but it’s featured on multiple songs and to fantastic effect on album highlight “Brite Boy.” Elsewhere on the album, songs like “Thorn” and “Bug” feature Alex playing with Elliott Smith-style chord progressions and melodies. While Beach Music expands upon Alex’s always-growing skills as a musician, I’m sure that he isn’t anywhere close to done expanding and experimenting. -Kevin Stairiker

Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett

Cheeky and endearing with spoken word lyrics, Courtney Barnett is your sarcastic stoner friend who trusts no one. – Blayne Waterloo

Coming Home – Leon Bridges

Every year needs its own classic-sounding R&B album to repel the onslaught of monotonous music assembled in an Ableton lab, and thankfully newcomer Leon Bridges delivered it. Hitting the marks that legends like Sam Cooke and Al Green laid before, Bridges fits the part and croons like they taught him personally. Lest you think he’s a dressed-up tribute act, songs like “Smooth Sailing” bridge the gap between the past and present in a very natural way. And after an SNL musical guest appearance and a feature on the upcoming Macklemore album, Bridges will be blowing up in a very real way in 2016, so don’t miss out on the hype train. -Kevin Stairiker

1989 – Ryan Adams

I’ll admit, I have a curious soft spot for Taylor Swift. Maybe it’s her local origins (what up, Wyomissing?); maybe it’s the fact that she seems a genuinely likable island in a sea of Top 40 jackassery. Everyone has a guilty pleasure – I’m prepared to take some guff for this. (Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Taylor’s gonna Tay, Tay, Tay, Tay, Tay.) But even if you don’t share my fondness for the Swift one, you really owe it to yourself to check out this oddity. It’s always curious when somebody covers an entire album, track for track, and it’s often played as a gag or a stunt. Not here, though. Adams smartly subverts the album’s upbeat moments, turning dance anthems into introspective sessions of mope-rock, while casting a decidedly Smiths-esque college rock sheen over the rest of the piece. The end result is worth a listen for sure, as it highlights Swift’s skill as a songwriter, as well as Adams’ skill as a producer and visionary. – Jed Reinert

Beauteous LovejoyFriendlier Bear [Harrisburg]

The music and lyrics on the EP illustrate moments of taking flight and soaring. For Payne, FriendlierBear allows him to imagine an elevated existence in a very real way.

Explorations EP – Svid Vor [Lancaster]

Lancaster-based ambient artist explores the outer limits of sound with his trippy EP full of sounds that would fit right at home as the soundtrack to any David Lynch movie. – Mike Andrelczyk

Rivers EPRivers

“Dark grass.” “Hip-hop Americana.” “Folk-funk-pop fusion.” These are just a few oddball genre names that attempt to describe the musical stylings of Harrisburg-based trio Rivers.

A Flourish and a SpoilThe Districts

We’ve written about them, and we’ve sure loved following their growth from small hometown shows as a noteworthy local high school band to, well, playing sold out shows across Europe, signing major record label deals and, now, sharing the stage with legendary bands like The Rolling Stones.

Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper – Panda Bear

With a new Animal Collective album looming in 2016, Panda Bear let his solo flag fly in 2015 and came up with danceable jams like “Come To Your Senses.” – Kevin Stairiker

Cheers to the Fall – Andra Day

It’s like Adele, Amy Winehouse and Rihanna were involved in a nuclear accident and were combined to make the best voice. – Blayne Waterloo

Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens

Whole books have been written on the purpose of music, and if there should be one at all. Should music be challenging and visceral or should it be fun and easy to consume? That question holds different answers for different people, but for Carrie & Lowell, it’s easy. This is a painful album thematically, owing entirely to Stevens’ attempts to grasp losing a mother he barely got the chance to connect with during her life. Returning five years after the electronic freakout of The Age Of Adz, Stevens surprised his fans by going in the opposite direction and returning to the almost entirely acoustic sound of earlier albums like Michigan and Seven Swans. Songs like “Death with Dignity” and “Eugene” flutter to life and then disappear with startling speed. This is an album entirely about facing death and how death is supposed to make you feel. It takes a special artist to connect their own intensely personal feelings and make them relatable. Stevens does that in spades. I was lucky enough to see the first show of his tour this year in Philly, where he played through the entire album. At some points his voice cracked, as if he truly wasn’t prepared to have to share these songs repeatedly in front of an audience. It was a powerful showing from an artist who has spent the last fifteen years proving again and again that he can do whatever he wants musically. -Kevin Stairiker

25 – Adele

Amid all the anticipation of lovelorn teeny boppers, Adele managed to muster some sadness after achieving awesomenes in her previous albums’ successes with 25. And – spoiler – she broke everything with it, including our hearts. – Blayne Waterloo

Mr. Wonderful – Action Bronson

Bronsolini brought it with Mr. Wonderful. The rapper/chef cooked up a masterpiece full of intricate raps about food, ’90s baseball players, women, falcons, more food and more women. – Mike Andrelczyk


Star Wars: The Force Awakens Soundtrack

C’mon, it’s Star Wars. You have to love this if only for the nostalgia. John Williams’ score to Star Wars: The Force Awakens offers up new themes while mixing in the familiar sounds of the Jedi and Sith. – Mike Andrelczyk

Fools – Wild Child

If you haven’t listened to the strings-wielding band which epitomizes indie folk, you’re missing out. – Blayne Waterloo

Emotion-Carly Rae Jepsen

I consider myself lucky to have heard “Call Me Maybe” about a month before it broke critical mass. I say this not to gain some sort of hybrid hipster/pop charts cred, but merely that I was able to enjoy the song frequently without feeling like I had been physically assaulted by it. Of course, things changed quickly, as they do, and I found myself wondering where Jepsen would go next – or if she would go anywhere at all. After a stint on Broadway, Jepsen made her return with an album that was immediate and supremely gratifying. Fusing the aspects of “Call Me Maybe” that made it a parasitic earworm with production from Dev Hynes and Rostam Batmanglij, Emotion is a dancefloor record for all seasons. Subtle pieces of music’s past and present find their way onto the album, whether it’s the Spandau Ballet-style keyboard on “All That” or the brash horn that begins both the album and standout track “Run Away With Me.” Most curiously, the album didn’t take off commercially whatsoever, even with a strong single in “I Really Like You” and a video featuring Tom Hanks and Justin Bieber. Frustrating, but expected. -Kevin Stairiker

Tell Me I’m Pretty – Cage the Elephant

The band’s transformed since Dan Auerbach took the producer’s seat for Tell Me I’m Pretty. Gone are the days of raucous lyrics and raves, and they’ve been replaced with a more dream-like, sweetheart rock. – Blayne Waterloo

Escape from Evil – Lower Dens

Jana Hunter and the Lower Dens’ third album keep the band’s penchant for the intellectual and combines its with danceable ’80s influenced pop. Be sure to check out our interview with Jana Hunter in the January edition. – Mike Andrelczyk


St. Germain – St. Germain

St. Germain returns with his dance club ready eponymous album featuring house beats and blues loops layered over live tracks recorded by Malian musicians to achieve a lush sound. – Mike Andrelczyk

Son Little – Son Little

If “O Mother” was the only good song on Son Little’s eponymous downtempo, hip-hop influenced and nu-soul album the record would still be on this list. “O Mother” is that good. – Mike Andrelczyk


Surf – Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment

Following Chance the Rapper’s supreme Acid Rap mixtape, the rest of the world and I waited with bated breath for the follow up. I will confess to feeling tinges of worry as Chance’s new project turned from a new solo album to sharing the billing with someone named Donnie Trumpet to eventually being an album by “The Social Experiment.” It seemed as if our hero was attempting to escape the trappings of a follow-up slump by burying himself in a group effort, but thankfully it’s nothing like that. Surrounded by a band and a band of guest stars including Janelle Monae, King Louis and a smiling (!) Busta Rhymes, Surf feels less like an album and more like friends getting together and playing what they feel. Chance floats through almost all of the songs, sometimes rapping, sometimes shouting signature sounds like “go!” and “yech!” throughout. The entire project makes his vanishing act seem worth it, a plea disguised as a concerted effort to hide Chance and make fans diligently listen to the entire album so that they can find him. However, you’ll have no problem finding Chance on his brilliant and still-crazy-that-it-happened buddy rap collaboration with Lil B, Free (Based Freestyles Mixtape). -Kevin Stairiker


American Man – The Yawpers

It’s part rock, part Americana, part punk, all awesome. Also, the video for “Doing it Right” is totally insane. – Mike Andrelczyk

Teen Men – Teen Men

The Delaware-based art and music collective released a super fun album full of quirky tripped out, psychedelic synth melodies and ambient asides definitely worth seeking out. – Mike Andrelczyk

Spill EPSpill [Lancaster]


In Spill’s songs, Brandon Gepfer, lead guitarist, vocalist and primary songwriter, reveals his unpropitious experience working at a job he hated, which left him with a depressive feeling of dissatisfaction.

Black Messiah – D’Angelo

You can’t fault D’Angelo for waiting. Fourteen years is a long time and yet, when Black Messiah finally dropped on December 15, it felt like a lifetime of work was put into the songs. Rush-released following the outrage and pain of Eric Garner and Ferguson news pieces, Black Messiah was meant to premiere at some point during 2015 – but, like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, it ended up defining it. Take this revealing couplet from “The Charade”:

“All we wanted was a chance to talk/’Stead we got outlined in chalk/Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked/Revealing at the end of the day, the charade”

There’s no way D’Angelo could know how depressingly prophetic those lines would be for a year of heartbreak, but I’m sure the dark irony of waiting over a decade for the perfect moment to release his third album didn’t escape him. Elsewhere on the album, our hero sings of love in the aptly titled flamenco jam “Really Love” and slice of funk “Betray My Heart.” As the first best album of 2015, I spent my year waiting for something to surpass it. Upon continued listens, I’m not sure if anything has. –Kevin Stairiker

 

Did we forget to mention one of your favorite releases from 2015? Tell us in the comments section.


 

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