Best albums of 2015: Kendrick Lamar, Courtney Barnett, Alabama Shakes and more
It was the year of Drake, the year of Adele, the year of Justin Bieber. And yet none of those artists’ new albums were among our favorite of 2015. Here are Pop Music/Culture Critic Jay Cridlin’s 10 best albums of the year.
10. Cam, Untamed: Like Chris Stapleton’s raw and revealing Traveller, Untamed, released Dec. 11, is a good reason to get excited about mainstream country’s evolution. It’s at turns emotionally searing (Burning House), sonically ambitious (Runaway Train) and laugh-out-loud funny (Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty). Co-written entirely by Cam, and produced with a canny ear toward mainstream radio, it’s a pop-friendly album that should nonetheless continue pushing Nashville in new and exciting directions in 2016.
9. Florence and the Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful: After two albums of ethereal, larger-than-life alternative rock, this was the year Florence Welch dove deep into American soul. Oh, How Big is still loaded with over-the-top rock — Ship to Wreck and What Kind of Man feel like flaming runaway trains in your earbuds. But the frenetic tambourines and big brass Florence and the Machine bring to songs like the title track (that outro!), Delilah and Third Eye make them sound like a band on a mission: To convert you back to the church of holy rock ‘n’ roll. Amen.
8. The Staves, If I Was: This English folk trio’s second album is just as achingly intimate and atmospheric as anything recorded by its producer, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and that’s saying something. Sisters Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor never sound better than when they’re harmonizing about heartbreak over sparse acoustic guitars and pianos, though you may find yourself stomping, and perhaps even screaming along, to alt-country tinged tracks like Teeth White and Black & White. How did the Brits get so good at Americana?
7. A$AP Rocky, At.Long.Last.A$AP: How many albums this year could bost cameos by M.I.A., Future and Rod Stewart? Only At.Long.Last.A$AP, a drugged-up head trip of an LP that combines smoky, meandering soul samples with watery, psychedelic production from artists ranging from Kanye West to Danger Mouse. It’s not without its issues (that unsavory Rita Ora reference on Better Things, for example), but this was still hip-hop’s most consistent mood piece of the year, an album you spin late at night when you have no plans to get back up.
6. Allison Weiss, New Love: The third album by Georgia-by-way-of-L.A. indie singer-songwriter Allison Weiss burrows its way into your brain and your heart almost immediately. Credit Weiss’ impeccably compact New-New Wave songwriting (no song comes in at more than four minutes) or her laid-bare lyrics about surviving bad breakups (“I see your pictures on the Internet / and I hate to admit that I’m just such a mess”). Whether she’s “spilling my guts right out” or “crying in the car to a Top 40 pop song,” Weiss is irresistably winning, proving comparisons to Tegan and Sara and Liz Phair aren’t far off.
5. Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion: To paraphrase one of Jensen’s hits: Fans who like Emotion really, really, really, really, really, really like Emotion. An homage to the late ’80s and early ’90s so on point it’s almost subversive, the Canadian singer’s follow-up to Call Me Maybe might be the most deeply considered pop album of its era. As inspired collaborators like Sia, Dev Hynes and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij swirl glistening influences all around her, Jepsen sings in coos about the push and pull of young love over epic sax riffs (Run Away With You) and soft-focus synthesizers (All That). It’s the rare album that not only deserves comparisons to Taylor Swift’s 1989, but actually tops it in almost every respect.
4. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, Surf: One imagines Chance the Rapper felt he had no choice but to credit his latest album to his trumpet player, Nico “Donnie Trumpet” Segal, and band, the Social Experiment. He’s an egalitarian that way, more into positive communal vibes than a spot in the spotlight. That ethos shines like a beacon across every corner of Surf, a gloriously uplifting mix of jazz, gospel and hip hop released as a free iTunes download in May. All of 22, Chance acts as something of a spiritual advisor to a who’s who of collaborators — J. Cole, Big Sean, Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes, Janelle Monae — all preaching the gospel of individuality and positivity. “You don’t wanna be cool, you just wanna be me,” he rasps on the sunny and inspiring Wanna Be Cool. “I don’t want you to be me, you should just be you.” If you listen to this album, you’re guaranteed to smile, if only for Donnie’s majestic trumpet solos.
3. Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color: It would’ve been easy for Alabama Shakes to drop another LP of bluesy garage rock steeped in sweaty Southern soul. On Sound & Color, however, the group expands their sonic palette in stunningly effective ways: Frizzy punk on The Greatest, schizoid art-rock on Future People, slow-jammy R&B on Over My Head. And yet there’s still enough of the old Shakes on hand to keep new fans not just interested, but enraptured — just see Brittany Howard’s spectacular, show-stopping vocal acrobatics on Gimme All Your Love. That Sound & Color is such a sonic leap forward, and that it debuted at No. 1 on the charts, makes you feel good about the future of American rock.
2. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit: “Put me on a pedestal, and I’ll only disappoint you!” 28-year-old Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett rages on Pedestrian at Best. Sorry, Courtney, but it hasn’t happened yet. Barnett’s wry, wordy and wonderful debut album scratches a number of nostalgic itches, calling to mind everyone from Elvis Costello and the Kinks to ’90s rockers like Elastica and the Lemonheads. But it’s her rambling, weary delivery and one-of-a-kind worldview that truly make Sometimes stand out. Barnett paints glorious little tableaus of little moments in her life, from a sleepless night in New York (“Staring at the ceiling, it’s a kind of off-white, maybe it’s a cream”), a bleary Australian roadscape (“Taxidermied kangaroos are littered on the shoulders”), an elevator ride with a judgmental passenger (“Her heels are high and her bag is snakeskin / hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton”). You can get lost in her lyrics or you can just rock out to the music. Both work.
1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: To Pimp a Butterfly feels like a direct challenge from Lamar: Here. This. Now. Repeat. The Compton, Calif., rapper’s wildly ambitious, astonishingly dense sophomore album was the album of the year practically from the moment it dropped in March, blowing minds with its novelistic heft and frank dissection of the black American experience, at a time when that was exactly what America needed. Lamar raps, slurs, dances, rages and waxes poetic over a dreamlike melange of hip hop, jazz, R&B, funk and even spoken word. He skewers not only society’s mistreatment of African Americans, but his own relationship to fame, women, temptation and artistic expression. Somehow he makes all this sound universal, from the soul-blessing i to the chest-pounding King Kunta to the vengeful The Blacker the Berry to the reflective How Much a Dollar Cost?, which President Obama called his favorite song of the year. It’s not a perfect LP (did the world really need that imagined Kendrick-Tupac interview?), but that’s kind of the point — life’s not perfect; it’s messy and complex and “conflicted,” to borrow a word Lamar drops more than once. In a year of massive triumphs — a headlining slot at Bonnaroo, 11 Grammy nominations, a Song of Summer contender in his and Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood — the one that trumps them all is To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s not just the album of the year by a mile, it’s already a contender for album of the decade. No one’s conflicted about that.
Honorable mention: Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy; The Internet, Ego Death; Mark Ronson, Uptown Special; Chris Stapleton, Traveller; Adele, 25
-- Jay Cridlin